19 - 26 May 2012
1880: London in the fog. Lights mysteriously rise and fall. A plot of hidden jewels.
Sat 7:45pm, Mon 7:45pm, Tue 7:45pm, Wed 7:45pm, Thu 7:45pm, Fri 7:45pm, Sat 2:45pm, Sat 7:45pm
1880: London in the fog. The gaslights cannot dispel the shadows in the home of the recently married Mr and Mrs Manningham. Why do the lights mysteriously rise and fall of their own accord? Who prowls the attic at night? Is Mrs Manningham losing her sanity, or is her life in deadly danger?
Though the play was written in 1938 and is often billed as a "Victorian thriller", Gaslight continues to offer two hours of absorbing yet escapist entertainment. While the plot revolves around hidden jewels, the dramatic interest is in Hamilton's study of psychological disorder and the play can be seen as a bridge between the plot-driven Victorian melodrama and the modern, more psychological thrillers of Frederick Knott and Alfred Hitchcock.
For me, finding Patrick Hamilton feels somewhat like joining a secret society. He was born in Hassocks in 1904 and was a writer of rare early promise. He wrote his first novel at 19; it was published three days after his twenty-first birthday and he enjoyed great popularity from the late Twenties until the early Fifties. Graham Greene, who might be considered something of an expert on the seaside resort’s underbelly, hailed The West Pier as “the best book written about Brighton”. Hamilton’s stage plays, Gaslight and Rope, enhanced his reputation and became celebrated Hollywood movies. Despite his early success, however, he was never a happy man: he descended into alcoholism and died in the Norfolk seaside resort of Sheringham in 1962, his ashes scattered on the Blakeney mud flats. After his death, his reputation declined and his name dropped out of the British literary pantheon. However, he has recently undergone a revival and the re-publication of his Gorse trilogy and the fresh West End production of Gaslight at the National Theatre in 2007 have launched a critical re-appraisal of his worth.
Established Lewes actors Ian Clegg Alan Lade and Ellie Woodruff-Bryant, whose Barmaid in Two made such an impression last December, join relative newcomers Trish Richings (the Countess in Flare Path) and Constance Owen, last seen in Travesties in 2004, who returns to play Bella, the role made famous by Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film.
The play was the first production in the
second season of the Theatre Club,
in October 1943, and this is the first
revival of one of the most gripping and
enduring thrillers in the British theatre.
Over 70 years on, Gaslight continues to
offer two hours of escapist yet absorbing
Don’t miss it !
Derek Watts, Director
Patrick Hamilton had a relatively short and turbulent life and died aged 58 from drink related illnesses. The son of writers, his father was an alcoholic which led to a fractured childhood due to financial and domestic problems, much of it in boarding houses in Chiswick and Hove. At 15 his mother took him out of Westminster School which meant the end of his formal education. Briefly an actor he began writing, publishing his novel Monday Morning in 1925 aged 19. His first real success was the play Rope written in 1929. Later on that and Gaslight, first performed in 1938, made Hamilton a rich man. He died in 1962, his literary output and relationships having been affected by his personal problems. Doris Lessing said, ‘He was a marvelous novelist, who’s grossly neglected’ and his fans include Graham Greene, JB Priestley, and David Lodge. Due to the rich tapestry of life he witnessed during his formative years, Hamilton often told tales of the disadvantaged using black and acerbic humour.
Gaslight is a psychological thriller with elements of theatrical melodrama and has an unusual structure for the genre – the reveal happening relatively early. Opening on the seemingly respectable world of a middle class, Victorian, married couple (the excellent set designed by Gerry Cortese drawing applause from the audience), we watched with increasing discomfort as it became clear this was a damaging relationship between a controlling husband and his nervy wife. I felt like we were watching a compelling episode of Eastenders from the golden days of Den and Angie - a guilty pleasure watching the impending car crash. An Inspector arrives gaining the trust of Bella Manningham, revealing the murder her husband, Jack, committed 20 years before in the house they now live in. She realises she is not insane, as her husband has suggested and helps engineer the arrest of Jack Manningham gaining her independence and sanity.
As ever LLT doesn’t shrink from challenging the actors. Most of Gaslight comprises two hander scenes with a mass of dialogue. Director Derek Watts’ actors were assured, fluid and fully committed. Ian Clegg as the psychopathic Jack Manningham was convincing and detailed, not overplaying the sinister aspect of the character but often hiding his madness and malevolence under the cloak of a middle aged grump. Constance Owen as Bella Manningham maintained the bird-like, neurotic, needy element of the role.
A bigger change was needed after it was revealed that her husband had been tricking her into thinking she was going mad, in particular when she realises that items he accuses her of ‘losing’ were hidden by him. However, being on the stage for virtually the whole play was a tough task and Constance carried it off with concentration and conviction, never lapsing into cliché. Alan Lade as Inspector Rough was polished and entertaining. The humour and delicacy he used while dealing with the damaged Bella Manningham was touching. You need a charismatic actor for parts such as these as they deliver the detail of the plot and Alan Lade served the play very well.
Trish Richings was totally believable as Elizabeth, the salt of the earth maid who has seen it all, bringing a twinkle to the comedic elements.
Ellie Woodruff-Bryant was perfect as Nancy the maid on the lookout for the main chance. I remember Ellie from The Madwoman of Chaillot and her commitment to the truth of acting is clear in her awareness of detail. I did think that the scene between her and Jack Manningham where she tries to seduce him was rather confusing directorially. In it she is duping Jack into thinking she is in love with him to hasten her climb up the social ladder. However this scene was played with sincerity as if she were really in love with him so an element was lost.
As noted on the programme cover, this is ‘an enduring and gripping thriller’. Derek Watts and his cast and crew did justice to the play and provided us with an entertaining and engrossing evening. Gaslight revolves around the central malevolent figure finally being duped by those he has previously controlled. It struck me there might be, unconsciously, an element of wish fulfilment by Hamilton due to the impact his father had on his childhood.
It’s heartening that Patrick Hamilton
has gained new interest in his work.
Locally, Lewes Library has a long list of reservations on Hamilton’s novels. Amongst various revivals Hangover Square is being filmed starring Keira Knightley. After a troubled life his star is rising once again.
Gaslight, a real Victorian thriller, was
certainly burning brightly (except, of
course, when the lights were eerily
lowered) on stage at Lewes Theatre
Club. Although it was first produced
in1938, it still packs a powerful punch.
Patrick Hamilton who was a prolific novelist and playwright and who also wrote Rope never had another major success after that and Gaslight (which was known as Angel Street in the USA as mentioned in the programme).
The extracts from Vaughan Williams’ “A London Symphony” were ideal as an introduction to each act, giving the necessary chilling feeling to what was to come.
The set was well arranged as a Victorian living room (with street lamp shrouded in fog) due to the skills of set designer Gerry Cortese, set constructors Dudley Ward and David Sharpe and set dresser Alison Soudain.
Ian Clegg’s Jack Manningham was chilling in the extreme, going from displaying kindness to his downtrodden wife Bella to severe mental torture in a bid to turn her mind completely so that she could be out of the way in an institution in order that he could find the jewels that he had murdered the previous occupant for.
Bella was played by Constance Owen, giving the character all the pathos that was needed to gain the audience’s sympathy for a young woman in this terrible situation. Alan Lade was the jovial ex-Police Inspector Rough, telling Bella on his entry that “You are up against the most awful moment of your life and your whole future depends on how you act in the next hour.” Strong words indeed for poor Bella, but the Inspector really was her salvation. He was helped in this by Elizabeth (played by Trish Richings) who had great sympathy for her mistress. The pert maid Nancy (Ellie Woodruff-Bryant) certainly had no sympathy for her at all and was only too willing to become Jack’s paramour. I do hope that RADA have the sense to accept this talented young actress.
It’s always interesting to see rehearsal photographs in the programme and they certainly showed the tension that was apparent in this production.
Director Derek Watts and his team are to be congratulated for bringing this full of suspense thriller to our attention.
Brenda Gower Regional NODA Representative