Gaslight @ Old Vic, London

directed by
Peter Gill
Whenever I leave a theatre, I find myself warmly clothed in a delightful sense of superiority.

I walk a little taller when I pass those who have evidently been enjoying themselves in low pursuits – in cinemas or comedy clubs, or at a gig. Yes: I may have spent three hours being baffled, bored or infuriated, and it may seem more than likely that I will have to forgo the use of my legs for the rest of the day – but I have paid my debt to Art, and appeased the gods.

Leaving the Old Vic last night having seen Patrick Hamilton’s Victorian thriller Gaslight, I was miserably aware that no smugness on my part was merited. I had enjoyed myself every bit as much as if I’d been snuggled under a blanket on Christmas Eve, cracking walnuts, and watching something expensive on the BBC.

Hamilton himself cheerfully acknowledged the play’s status: he called it ‘sincere good fun theatre.’ And good fun it certainly is: Mrs Manningham, played here by Rosamund Pike, is a frail woman clinging to her stern husband’s arm very much in the accepted manner of the Victorian wife, who fears for her sanity.

Odd items disappear, and are found in her workbasket: she is accused of stealing them. Mr Manningham can barely contain his wrath at her crumbling sanity, and leaves the house every night after their tea and crumpets, in a fury. But why does she then see the gaslights above the mantel dim, and sit in the darkness, hearing a patient footstep tread back and forth in the locked rooms above?

Just as her mind seems finally about to fracture, salvation arrives in the form of a retired policeman, warm of heart, resolute of purpose, and suspiciously rosy about the nose (Scotch, he says, is Delicious: somewhere between ambrosia and methylated spirits”).

The revelations that follow hold few surprises, once Detective Rough sets the scene with a tale of an unsolved murder, and an undiscovered treasure. For all that, there are moments of extreme tension, not least because Andrew Woodall’s Manningham is so gratifyingly villainous that the actor’s final bow was greeted with genial booing.

There are longeurs, perhaps particularly in those scenes between Manningham and his wife: certainly we pity Mrs Manningham, played by Pike with a sort of luminous pathos, but Kenneth Cranham’s superbly adroit detective is always a welcome diversion. Sally Tatum as Nancy, the pert maid trailing insolent ribbons from her mob-cap, which she has evidently set at her master, is splendid, as is Rowena Cooper as the motherly cook.

The play is not without its problems. The characters speak Victoriana as envisaged by a thirties playwright with an enthusiastic imagination (I wish you weren’t such a perfect little silly!), then lapse into the vernacular: the swerves are occasionally unnerving. The character of Mrs Manningham might perhaps have been drawn more deeply: there are shades of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s painful feminist short story The Yellow Wallpaper in her struggle with sanity, but altogether she is every bit as dim-witted as all beautiful women deserve to be.

I would have forgiven more shortcomings than these for the pleasure of the staging. Showing a flock-papered room thick with Delftware and cathedral prints, glossy locked cabinets and blooming gas-lanterns, it was the sort of set I could cheerfully have looked at for at least half an hour without the presence of any actors.

It’s a shame the whole experience was dented a little by the agonised squeals from the arthritic chairs. Every shifting bottom or stretched leg was accompanied by squeaks fit almost to drown out the actors’ lines: all in all it’s a blessing the play slips down as easily as a mug of Horlicks on winter’s night, or the sound would be deafening. Go, by all means but take your own can of WD40.

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