REVIEW: Gaslight gives audiences shocks, thrills, and an important history lesson


Gaslight - Credit: Archant

Perhaps one of the most underrated thrillers of the twentieth-century is playing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre this week.

Set in a murky and fog-invested London in 1880, Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight tells the story of devoted housewife, Bella Manningham, who thinks she’s losing her mind.

Her husband, Jack, gives her things to keep safe, but they keep disappearing and eventually he suspects that, like her mother, Bella is going mad.

But Jack torments and manipulates his wife, heads out into the night unexplained, and flirts with his maid.

Then there’s the question of the gaslight, which keeps getting brighter and dimmer whenever Bella hears footsteps upstairs.

Although it was written in 1938, Hamilton’s work highlights the very Victorian fears of insanity and false imprisonment in a lunatic asylum – a horror subtly woven into every aspect of the play.

Bella’s hair and dress gradually become more dishevelled, the lights turning up and down mimic her frantic state of mind, and, while Jack is allowed to leave, Bella, and audience, are totally confined to the house – and their thoughts.

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The 2017 production features Eastenders star and 2010 Strictly Come Dancing winner, Kara Tointon as Bella, alongside BBC One Merlin’s Rupert Young as Jack.

Although both mesmerising in the roles, it’s Keith Allen who steals the show, appearing as a mysterious visitor called Rough who has a horrible and grisly truth for Bella.

Credit really is due to the actor who, for three years, cemented himself as the heartless, calculating and fear-inducing Sherriff of Nottingham in BBC’s Robin Hood.

But here there is almost a sense of relief when he comes onstage – a kind, warm and at times hysterical companion to Bella’s night of woe, and a character who is determined to help her find the truth.

This play launched Hamilton into stardom when it first debuted at the Richmond Theatre, in London, but, other than two 1940s film adaptations, has never really been dubbed a ‘classic’.

It should be, though – Hamilton makes an important statement about theatre, Victorian attitudes, psychological manipulation, and repression.

And it’s refreshing to see themes which have been confined to the pages of a Wilkie Collins’ or Bram Stoker novel come to life onstage.

Yes, Hamilton sometimes plays on the pantomime roles of good and evil, but he’s not poking fun at times gone by - he’s giving these issues the oxygen they deserve.

That’s what theatre is all about.

Gaslight is playing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until February 18 and tickets start at £18.

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