Reviewed by Jayne Knight
From entering the auditorium, the stage is was prepared, curtains open, revealing the lounge of the Manningham house. The set in itself is an optical illusion based on an Ames room.
The walls and ceiling are made of gauze will allows the use of backlighting and projection for effect, in that whilst the set never changes the audience can watch a person walk out of the room and upstairs. We are also privy through projection of the upper floors of the building. Technologically this set is a masterpiece in that it allows us to see different parts of the house, whilst remaining in the lounge.
The play, a thriller, written by Patrick Hamilton is set in the Victorian Era, a time when a wife was expected to defer to her husband, but this two-act play takes deference to another level. It is a story of emotional abuse and controlling behaviour, that if proven today is punishable by law. However, there is a more sinister reason for Mr. Manningham’s behaviour.
As the story of Mr and Mrs. Manningham begins to unfold it is clear by not only his words, but his actions, expressions and intonation that Mr. Manningham (James Wilby) has an unhealthy relationship with his wife Bella. He uses light and shade to manipulate her. As his manner changes from being a loving thoughtful husband, he turns quickly from mild mannered, into a raging specimen of humanity, leaving Bella vulnerable. Such is the power of the man that his wife is becoming a broken woman. He comes over as insidious, treacherous and deceptive – a man to avoid. James Wilby shows a versatility in his acting that gives depth and credence to his character.
From the outset, Bella, (Charlotte Emmerson) is afraid. Her mannerisms are of a woman willing to please her husband and just as she thinks she is doing his bidding his words cut her down, reducing her to a gibbering wreck. As she tries to comprehend what is happening to her there is a fear on her face, bewilderment and at one point she is seen sitting on her hands, front and centre stage, shoulders slumped as she faces another tirade. Married for seven years she is conscious of the facts surrounding her mother’s death; she fears that she too will suffer the same fate. Her quickness of speech and willingness to please against all odds are suggestive of an abusive relationship and a mania that she cannot control, which is excellently portrayed.
The two maids of the house, Nancy, (Georgia Clarke-Day) and Elizabeth, (Mary Chater) are both under the influence of Mr. Manningham in different ways. Elizabeth, although she sees what his happening, knows her place and would agree with anyone if she could remain in service. Nancy is flighty and loose tongued, yet it is this trait that brings assistance to Mrs Manningham’s predicament, although it is also clear that she would do anything for Mr. Manningham. Two very capable supporting roles, well-acted and thoroughly believable of the Victorian age.
When Rough, (Martin Shaw) is waiting to be shown into the lounge, his stance in the doorway is enhanced by lighting techniques, which without him saying a word portrays his presence. A mild-mannered persona is infused with amusing side-lines to lighten the tension. Initially I had some doubt as to his accent, but as time progressed, he settled into a mild, soft, Irish brogue, giving a laid-back air of calmly steering Mrs. Manningham through the evening. His character is far removed from the Martin Shaw we have come to know through The Professionals, Judge John Deed and Inspector George Gently, yet the air of authority is evident. He speaks with an eloquence that makes the audience realise why the house is sinister, a good few minutes before he breaks through Mrs. Manningham’s fog filled brain. It is a role in which Martin Shaw is able to show his stagecraft to the full.
With a nod to sound (Mic Pool) and lighting,(Chris Davey) the performance is enhanced by the sound effects and timed to perfection gas lights in the gloom of a London evening. As significant as these lights are to the plot, it is interesting to note that ‘gaslighting’, when used as a verb has derived from this play and is now a recognisable term in psychology for gross mental manipulation by a man to his wife.
Another superb play from the Bill Kenwright stable. If you enjoy thrillers, then this is not to be missed. Currently on tour prior to opening in London, Gaslight will be in Birmingham until the 5th October with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday.
There is nearby parking in New Street secure park, (£10 pay on return to car), or if you don’t mind a few minutes walk, then the Arcadia car park can be prepaid on arrival for £6.50.
Tickets cost from £13 (plus £3.65 transaction fee).
Gaslight is at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from 30 September to 5 October 2019, for more information or to book tickets visit www.atgtickets.com/birmingham or call the box office on 0844 871 3011.
The Alexandra Theatre, Suffolk Queensway, Birmingham, West Midlands, B5 4DS