On Tuesday 17th January, I went to see the Patrick Hamilton play Gaslight at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre. As you probably know, musicals are much more my forte, however I have recently found myself really getting into plays, probably since A-Level English Literature when I watched a couple of plays on Digital Theatre for my coursework and really got into them.
Gaslight is set in January 1871 and tells the story of Bella Manningham, a young lady trapped in the clutches of her controlling husband, Jack Manningham. Bella believes that she is ‘going mad’ as a number of unexplained things happen to her, such as things going missing and either turning up is strange places or not turning up at all. One evening after her husband storms out following an argument, a visitor, Rough, calls for Bella. He introduces himself as a retired police officer who investigated a murder that took place at the Manningham’s house a number of years back and believes that the killer may have come back to get the Barlow Rubies, the very reason he killed Alice Barlow all those years ago. Bella soon confesses that odd things have been happening in the house, that she often hears footsteps walking on the deserted and forbidden top floor of the house and that the gaslights in the bedroom dim considerably at the same time and then come back up when the footsteps can no longer be heard.
Kara Tointon played the long-suffering yet incredibly courageous Bella. Tointon is an incredibly charming actress, with a number of notable credits to her name. Her ability to play such a dimensional and emotional character made you really feel her performance, empathise with the character and ultimately will her to win back her freedom. The character of Bella goes on a significant journey throughout the play, which is set in one evening. At the start of the evening, she is a rather naive, overexcitable young lady who is enthused by the idea of going to the theatre to see an actor she is fond of – or, in this day, a fan of. Soon after, we see a different side to the character as both she and the audience are manipulated to believe that she is going ‘mad’ and here, Tointon portrays Bella as vulnerable and almost helpless. When visited by Rough, her character changes again to the ‘Lady of the House’, prim and proper, which I interpreted as a mask for her vulnerability. We saw the character experience a wave of both relief and feeling of betrayal at the events which followed (but I shall not reveal because that would give away the plot) and then again retreat to her her previous form when faced with her husband once more. The final showdown between the two characters brings out the very best of Kara Tointon’s acting abilities, allowing the character to blossom and finally prevail.
Bella’s husband, Jack Manningham was played by the wonderful Rupert Young. Jack Manningham is a cruel bully of a character who manipulates the vulnerable to demonstrate his own power and Young plays this brilliantly. You knew something was not quite right about Manningham from his very first scene on stage. The way he spoke to Bella, the way he treated her, everything about their married relationship was just wrong and after Bella learnt about his past, you could tell how terrified she was of him, as was I , as an audience member. A fantastic and twisted performance from Rupert Young.
Keith Allen played the role of Rough, Bella’s visitor and a retired policeman determined to solve a case from long ago. Allen was a true delight to watch on the stage – he played a rather eccentric, yet serious character but provided a lot of comedy relief throughout the show which kept the balance perfectly. Rough is also a very mysterious character and not knowing all that much about him, made my thoughts go in a completely different direction from the actual conclusion of the play, which was an element I like – storytelling that keeps you guessing.
Overall, I really enjoyed this terrifying play and highly recommend it. The simplicity of only one set and the minimal effects and background goings-on allowed you to fully engage in the actors and their performances as well as focus on the story and where it might lead. The play is wonderfully written and at some points makes the audience doubt what is real and what is only in the mind of Bella. If you enjoy a good mystery and psychological thriller, then catch this play if you can before it finishes its run in Aylesbury on Saturday.