An actor runs a Hetty Hoover around the pink carpet of a living room set as the audience enters the well-proportioned Playground Theatre. I don’t know why so many directors choose to start their productions in this way – having the cast engaged in a ten-minute mime as the stalls slowly fill up. Possibly it’s intended to set the stage in some way, engaging us in “the world of the play” before the action begins, but it rarely works for me.
You’ll be familiar with the term “gaslighting”, which describes a person undermining another’s equilibrium by causing them to doubt themselves. It’s a form of emotional abuse that’s come into focus post-#MeToo as it’s most associated with men controlling women.
Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play provided the origin of the expression, and as director Imy Wyatt Corner says in her brief programme note, gaslighting is as pernicious a tactic of psychological manipulation in modern times as it has ever been. (A rather longer article by set designer Kate Halstead reveals the significance of the carpet colour).
This sort of mind-play is often horribly fascinating in drama, but sadly not in this clunky and dated whodunnit. What Gaslight lacks in sophistication is compounded by this production’s failure to find any true contemporary relevance in the story.
Jack Manningham (Jordan Wallace) is the villain of the piece, taking a carrot-and-stick approach to controlling his wife Bella (Jemima Murphy) with the prospect of a night out at the theatre but then withdrawing the promised treat and making her believe she’s as mad as her late mother who died raving in an asylum. But as Murphy dithers wanly around clutching the furniture for support and Wallace woodenly goes through the motions of a sociopath, nothing convinces or stirs much interest.
The household is completed by servants Nancy (Grace Howard, monotonously coquettish) and Elizabeth (Rebecca Ashley, efficient in a bland part).
It’s bizarrely notable that Bella’s predicament is resolved not through her own agency or resourcefulness, but by the arrival of another man, who explains the situation to her and precipitates her husband’s downfall. Fortunately, this man (Police Inspector Rough) is played by Joe McArdle, an actor with charisma and a light comic touch who alone amongst the performers seems to be enjoying himself – you miss him when he’s not onstage.
The concept of gaslighting is fascinating and relevant, but it’s a mistake to imagine that Gaslight the play has genuine psychological depth just because it originated the term. It’s a parlour piece which hasn’t aged well, and it ends with no more profundity than the anachronistic vacuum cleaner with which is begins.
Written by: Patrick Hamilton
Directed by: Imy Wyatt Corner
Produced by: First Floor
Playing until: 10 November 2019
Box Office: 020 89600110
Booking Link: http://theplaygroundtheatre.london/events/gaslight/