Gaslight is a classic Victorian melodrama. It was first staged in 1938 in London, played as Angel Street in New York, and has enjoyed revivals on both sides of the Atlantic. And here it is again, this time billed by the promoter as one of the greatest thrillers of all time. Perhaps it was in 1938 – but Gaslight is short on both tension and credibility. It is, however, thoroughly good entertainment and it is real theatre. Well done to the New Vic for bringing us this – and it would be good for us provincial theatregoers to have more drama at this splendid theatre.
Patrick Hamilton’s play is the story of an upper middle class household in which the unfortunate young wife is either going mad by being kept at home with no outside contact – or is she victim of a scheming husband? And, if so, why?
The set and costumes took us satisfactorily to Victorian London and the play is well produced. The leading lady, Kara Tointon, gives us a believable, subjugated Victorian wife while the doughty copper, Detective Rough, played by Keith Allen, keeps the whole thing moving along and Hamilton has given him just the right amount of humour for a melodrama. Jack Manningham, the husband played by Rupert Young, was handicapped by not being given any good lines; perhaps Hamilton thought he was such a baddy that he didn’t deserve any.
We in the audience were drawn in to grapple for twists and surprises and there were a number of opportunities to suppose all was not what it seemed. Very good, but we were left with enough implausibilities to question the author’s credentials as a great playwright. Hamilton did enjoy considerable success as a young writer of plays and novels and this seems to have kept him in sufficient funds to slowly drink himself to death over a couple of decades.
There was no painting of the background to this story and, at times the action jumped without explanation. It was a little unsatisfactory that the downtrodden wife was so quickly taken into the confidence of Rough when he arrived suddenly and did little to establish his credentials as a policeman, except to invite the hapless lady to look into his eyes.
British and American film versions were made in the 1940s. I’ll l look out for a showing of either at a cinema club. For all its shortcomings, there is something charming and warmly entertaining about the story. If you enjoy real theatre, please go and see it; it’s quite pacey, and gives you enough to think about. It has almost no sex, there is no physical violence and it is music-free, as a melodrama should be. Very enjoyable and wonderful to have proper theatre at the New Victoria.
[Peter Morley 24 January 2017]
Gaslight is playing at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from 24 to 28 January, at 7.30pm, with matinees on Wednesday 25 January and Saturday 28 January at 2.30pm.