Madness, murder and intrigue is at the heart of the latest revival of the stunning melodrama Gaslight, that opened at The Alexandra Theatre last night. The Victorian murder mystery that also doubles as a clever psychological thriller is a nasty twisty tale with a true villain at its heart, and a real twist at the end. I loved it!
The action takes place over the course of one night, in the year 1871, with all events focusing on the drawing room in the home of Bella and Jack Manningham. What seems like a happy marriage is very soon shown to be anything but, as Bella is unveiled as a woman most definitely on the edge of madness, a family affliction which also affected her mother, who died a suicide. But questions are also raised by the actions of Jack Manningham, who is certainly a cruel and unfeeling husband who may just be pushing his wife headfirst into her madness. Who is really hiding precious objects in the house? Why is Bella forbidden to enter the top floor of her own home? And why do those gaslights keep flickering and dimming when Bella is alone? The arrival of a mysterious ex detective called Rough may soon answer all those questions, but will Bella find the answer before she descends into madness? This is the premise of Gaslight.
Bella, the frail wife on the edge of madness is played by Charlotte Emmerson, who captures the mixture of helplessness, bordering on hysteria perfectly. Her scenes with James Wilby as her husband Jack crackle with uneasy tension, even during their lighter moments, and her final scene is delivered with a clever twist that is totally satisfying. James Wilby is perfect, a caddish, debonair villain who brings areal air of menace to the role. He also has great chemistry with the slinky, kittenish maid Nancy (Georgia Clarke-Day), a saucy minx with her eyes firmly on her boss.
Martin Shaw is simply amazing as Rough, the visitor who turns out to be a retired detective, obsessed with a case he might just be able to solve after 20 long years. He brings real humour to the proceedings, not least with the surprise Irish accent, and his characterisation is both warm and genuinely funny at times, but with the right amount of quiet menace when he finally confronts Jack.
The confining of most of the action to one room gives it a Gothic, claustrophobic air, and there are times when the tension is almost unbearable, particularly in the scene where Rough is hiding from Jack, and housekeeper Elizabeth (the excellent Mary Chater) is trying to draw attention away from his hiding place. However, the excellent set design means the audience are given glimpses of what is happening outside the room and also set up an extra surprise at the end that leave the audience feeling very satisfied – if not a little jumpy.
Gaslight is a melodrama that truly satisfies, a glorious touch of Victorian malice as the nights start to draw in.