Review: Gaslight at Playground Theatre

I recently read an interview with actor and writer Rebecca Humphries, who last year found herself at the centre of a media storm when she very publicly – and deservedly – broke up with her boyfriend, the comedian Seann Walsh. In the interview, she explained that she knew something was wrong in her relationship, but it was only when she first heard the term “gaslighting” that she was quite able to put her finger on the problem.

Photo credit: William Waterworth

The same could be said of Bella Manningham (Jemima Murphy), the central character in Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. She’s become forgetful and irrational, losing her own possessions and apparently moving those of her husband, Jack (Jordan Wallace). She hears footsteps in the empty apartment above, and is convinced that she sees the gaslight dimming every evening while her husband is away. Encouraged by her husband, Bella begins to believe the worst: that, like her mother before her, she’s losing her mind. It’s not until unorthodox police inspector Rough (Joe McArdle) bursts very suddenly into her life one evening that her eyes are opened to the truth about both her husband and the psychological abuse to which he’s been subjecting her for years.

Though written in 1938 and set in 1880, the play could hardly be more relevant, with knowledge and recognition of gaslighting as a concept considerably more widespread in 2019. This production, directed by Imy Wyatt Corner, blurs the timing of the action by retaining the original dialogue but allowing the characters a more relaxed way of speaking. Meanwhile Kate Halstead’s set design combines Victorian furniture with a modern filing cabinet and pink carpet of a shade that was apparently proven in the 1960s to calm people down. Though occasionally distracting, this merging of timelines is clever and for the most part works well.

The strongest and most interesting performances come from Jemima Murphy and Joe McArdle – the former captures Bella’s nervous energy and confusion, while the latter brings a slightly dangerous edge to the character of Rough. The exchanges between the two provide plenty of audience laughs, but also, at times, add to our unease. For all his charming eccentricity, in some ways the police inspector feels just as patronising and bullying as Bella’s husband, to the extent that I never really picked up on the promised “fresh and feminist perspective” – and more than once half expected another, even bigger, twist at the end of the play.

Photo credit: William Waterworth

That particular twist didn’t materialise, but nonetheless the story holds plenty of surprises as the truth is gradually pieced together. The building suspense is accentuated by Gregory Jordan’s all-important lighting design, which sees lights fading and flickering at moments of particular tension, and a barely perceptible rumble throughout, courtesy of sound designer Herbert Homer-Warbeck.

80 years after it was first performed, Gaslight remains a powerful and thought-provoking play, with a plot that’s intriguing and full of surprises, underpinned by a creeping tension throughout. While this reimagining doesn’t necessarily deliver on all its promises, the production does successfully highlight the continuing relevance of both the story and its core issue.

Gaslight is at the Playground Theatre until 10th November.

Review: The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

First performed in Edinburgh in 2014, Mark Farrelly’s solo show about the life of writer Patrick Hamilton is a fascinating insight into a troubled mind. Hamilton, who came from a family of novelists, enjoyed success as a writer from a young age; despite producing several bestselling novels, he’s perhaps best known today for his plays Rope and Gaslight (which, as a side note, gave us the modern expression gaslighting). But he also struggled for years with alcoholism and depression, and when we first meet him, he’s awaiting his final session of electroconvulsive shock therapy – an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to beat the Black Dog once and for all.

The Silence of Snow at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Encouraged by our “earnest silence”, Hamilton goes back to the beginning, sharing the story of his life in a monologue that combines Farrelly’s own words with excerpts from Hamilton’s work. Both are of a high standard, playing gleefully with language to paint unique and vivid pictures in our minds. These come to life in the masterful hands of Farrelly himself, who doesn’t so much play as inhabit the role of Hamilton. Charismatic and unpredictable, he builds an instant rapport with the audience, and then proceeds to hold us spellbound for the next 70 minutes. The total absence of any set behind him feels increasingly irrelevant as he easily holds our attention, conjuring up settings, characters – both real and taken from Hamilton’s work – and even a horrific car crash (which left him disfigured for the rest of his life) quite literally out of thin air.

Despite the lack of set, Linda Marlowe’s production is still highly atmospheric, due in no small part to the very effective lighting and sound design. The hiss and crackle of the impending shock therapy creates a sense of urgency in Hamilton’s monologue, and there’s an intense scarlet light that floods the stage each time he relives – somewhat vicariously, it seems – the violent acts committed by his characters. In contrast, at one point the lights are extinguished altogether, to great comic effect.

In fact, for a play about a depressed alcoholic, The Silence of Snow is very enjoyable and often surprisingly funny. Hamilton narrates his life with a wry humour and gently mocking tone – more than once the audience is invited to “keep up” – that masks his intensifying mental struggle. Late in the play, he invites his wife, ex-wife and brother to an intervention of sorts, which rapidly falls apart and leaves him alone and terrified of what lies ahead; it’s only in this moment that we really see the fragility of the man behind the mask. This scene gains greater poignancy when we learn that the play’s dedicated to Farrelly’s close friend Tim Welling, who was the first person to read it, but who took his own life before he could see it performed. (A collection for MIND taken after the show has so far raised over £7,500.)

The Silence of Snow at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Patrick Hamilton was once one of Britain’s most successful writers, but less than a century later, he’s faded into relative obscurity. The Silence of Snow seeks to shine a light not just on Hamilton’s work but also on the man himself – even if that light isn’t always particularly flattering. It’s not a very cheery tale, but it is an informative and expertly performed biographical piece, which – if you’re anything like me – will send you home wanting to know more.

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