Why oh why is the Old Vic reviving a lamentably awful 1939 play, Gaslight, by Patrick Hamilton? This production, by the usually dazzling playwright and director Peter Gill, must be the worst mistake at this address under Kevin Spacey’s artistic directorship. For any of you who fondly recall the film version starring Ingrid Bergman, I am reliably told that the (original) stage version is quite different, and the film far superior.
I don’t actually blame Gill the failure of the evening, there is very little you can do with a static melodrama like this, especially as it lacks any innate tension or suspense in the storyline. Set in an upper middle class Victorian London house, the cast is led by Rosamund Pike as Bella Manningham, a woman who has come to doubt her sanity, but is surely a kindly soul. Her husband Jack, played by Andrew Wodall, is a volatile and aggressive man, scolding his wife and threatening her with institutionalisation when a picture is mysteriously taken down or a slip of paper goes missing. Add a loyal elderly servant and a brazen impudent young one, and you have the perfect scenario for domestic strife. Then walks in, whilst the husband is out of course, a retired police detective (Kenneth Cranham) calling round to warn Mrs Manningham that her husband is a crazed murderer who associates with unsavoury chorus girls during his evenings out. He also happens to leave the house nightly (before searching out the chorus girls), in order to secretly return to the upper floors of his home via the roof, so that he can search for the jewels belonging to an old lady murdered in the house 20 years ago. Mrs Manningham had been suspicious; the top floor was out of bounds and she heard footsteps and noise emanating form there all the time, but somehow she couldn’t connect this with her clearly mad husband trying to turn her insane by hiding things and punishing her for it.
Naturally the policeman finds the evidence needed to get the blighter and Mrs Manningham is saved from a fate worse then death, but oh lord, we have two whole hours leading up to it (plus a god sent interval). Not just two hours of drama mind you, but two hours of tedious and turgid melodrama. Ms Pike and Mr Woodall are not exactly subtle in their acting style, but then this is to all intents and purposes a pantomime without the laughs or emotional depth (Wodall eliciting boos and hisses at the curtain call, in the nicest possible way I’m sure). At Least Kenneth Cranham as the policeman gives us a slightly tongue in cheek performance, I’m sure that he’s in on the fact that the play is a complete dud.
Sometimes when I scold a play or musical I’m going against the views of a populist majority, but on leaving Gaslight I heard a woman say ‘gosh, wasn’t that the worst play you’ve ever seen’, and my fellow gallery dwellers did not seem too delighted either. On this evidence Patrick Hamilton is not a writer we need to be in any hurry to revive again.
P.S: Why did Mr Manningham only search the upper floors for the jewels? Yes the policeman said that they were ‘known’ to be kept in her bedroom, but she could have hidden them anywhere- as indeed she did! If I’d been searching one floor of the house for 6 months I might have looked elsewhere…