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.