by Lynn on January 21, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Patrick Hamilton
Directed by David Gilmour
Set and costumes by David Woodhead
Lighting by Howard Hudson
Sound by Gareth Owen
Cast: Emily Head
Victoria Lennox
Ian McElhinney
Flora Montgomery
Owen Teale

A psychological thriller set in the Victorian era that will have a contemporary audience squirming for all the right reasons.

The Story. England, 1880. Jack and Bella Manningham live in a well appointed house that her inheritance bought and his fancy tastes enjoy. Jack is trying to drive Bella crazy. He’s crafty. He accuses her of losing bills he has to pay; of moving paintings from the wall and not putting them back; of losing jewellery he gave her. She feels isolated and alone. She believes that when he goes out at night and she is alone that the light from the gas lit lamps in the room lower and then flicker to full glow after a while. Jack says she is imagining it. In time Bella begins to believe it too. She is afraid of every move she makes in his presence for fear she will make a wrong move and further prove Jack’s prophecy—that she is going mad. He notes that her mother went insane. The same fate awaits Bella. Then a mysterious man, Inspector Rough, appears and tries to allay her fears and reveal the truth. Jack has a dark secret.

The Production. Playwright Patrick Hamilton has created a well made psychological thriller. Jack (Owen Teale) is an imposing man, in full control and overbearing when it comes to the timid, fragile-minded Bella. He knows how to play on her weaknesses. When she tries to protest he calmly uses her emotional outbursts to his advantage. As Jack, Owen Teale is brooding, carefully manipulative and formally articulate when it comes to Bella. Affection is not in this guy’s repertoire. That does not go with his scheme to drive Bella ‘bonkers.” He does know how to be sort of kind and accommodating and once Bella appears to be happy about his kindness—he takes it back. Jack reserves his charm for the women he meets outside the house and for the young maid, Nancy, in his employ.

As Bella, Flora Montgomery is a flutter of fragility. She is afraid to move even soundlessly, when Jack falls asleep in the drawing room while she does her embroidery. She seems in a constant state of quiet panic when he reprimands her for the slightest transgression. It’s unsettling to watch and of course, that’s the point. But help is on its way, we hope, in the form of Inspector Rough. He has a hunch about Jack. A triangle has formed with Bella being the person both men are trying to claim: Jack as he tries to manipulate her and Inspector Rough as he tries to free her. As Rough, Ian McElhinney is courtly, perhaps a bit over the top dramatically, but this is supposed to be Victorian England so a bit of over-the-top acting is not out of the question. In his way, he is as commanding as Jack is.

Patrick Hamilton has laid the ground work for the thriller to work. The actors rise to the occasion. David Woodhead’s darkly designed drawing room creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia even though the room is large. Howard Hudson’s lighting is exquisite for carefully illuminating faces in an eerie light.

If I have a concern with the production it’s with director David Gilmour’s heavy handed touch. The curtain goes up to eerie music that continues as Bella is anxious to move from her seat but is terrified of disturbing Jack who is asleep. Often during the production there is a rumbling sound effect that underlines the ‘drama’ of scenes. Are these stage directions in the play? I doubt it since Patrick Hamilton has so carefully written the play to establish every anxious moment of it. In crucial moments when Jack is circling Bella or coming in close to her to unsettle her further, Gilmour has him back off and stand at a distance. I think that odd for a man who is relentless in his efforts to drive his wife over the brink.

Comment. We live in a time where we have seen every atrocity on the Six O’Clock News. We have read about brainwashing, torture, mental manipulation etc. But with Gaslight we see a character methodically destroying a woman’s confidence and sanity with his simple manipulation of what she believes to be true; he makes things up about what has happened; she eventually believes him and her mind becomes more and more fragile. The term “gaslighting’ was coined to describe just such a form of mental manipulation. Watching Bella sink deeper into mental anguish because of Jack’s trickery has the audience squirming for all the right reasons. Gaslight was written in 1938 and set in a time more than 130 years ago. It still packs a punch.

Paul Elliott in association with David Mirvish presents:

Opened: January 20, 2016.
Closes: February 28, 2016.
Cast: 5; 2 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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