Gaslight. By Patrick Hamilton. Directed by barb barnett. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3. Until August 15. Bookings: canberrarep.org.au.
A picture mysteriously disappears from the wall. Gaslights inexplicably flicker and fade. A dog peculiarly receives an injured paw in a house where 20 years earlier an old lady was murdered for the exotic Barlow rubies. And why is present owner Jack Manningham now cruelly taunting his wife, Bella, with harsh insults and wild accusations, driving her to the perilous precipice of insanity?
Patrick Hamilton's 1938 psychological thriller, Gaslight, is the stuff of suspense dramas. Billed a Victorian thriller, it has all the ingredients of a melodrama. Jack Manningham (Peter Holland) is the psychopathic villain, Bella (Kate Blackhurst) the unfortunate damsel in distress and retired Inspector Rough (Pat Gallagher) the unlikely hero.
However, director barb barnett and her cast resist the temptation to lapse into melodrama, choosing to probe for the truth beyond the psychological abuse and strange occurrences. Ian Croker's brilliantly conceived Victorian living-room design, perfectly constructed by set construction co-ordinator Russell Brown and his team, sets an unmistakable tone of realism for the events. Helen Drum's authentic costume designs add to the sense of period and character.
Essentially, the success or failure of Canberra Repertory's production of this classic mystery rests with the director and cast. Gaslight is not without its challenges. Written a year before Freud's death, its psychoanalytical influences are apparent in Manningham's sinister manipulation and mental abuse of Bella. Suspense, tension and surprise serve as the recipe to thrill and entertain as the ebullient Rough sets out on the chase to trap the villain and prevent Bella from sliding into a psychotic abyss.
Blackhurst initially tackles the difficult role with trepidation, avoiding histrionic cliche, but lacking strength of conviction in her bewilderment. Her performance gains confidence as Rough releases Bella from her fearful imaginings and she achieves new-found assertiveness. Both Blackhurst and Holland appear restrained by a lack of pace. Ironically, tension is lost because of the apparent intent to slow the action to heighten suspense.
Holland's scheming and abusive husband is played with the confident and deliberate measure of the assured middle-class Victorian Englishman. A touch more of the sinister would have added more interest to his deliberate restraint.
The real energy of the production came from Gallagher's natural and jovial Rough and Natalie Waldron's coquettish and saucy maidservant, Nancy. Gallagher played the laugh lines to full effect and Waldron titillated with her mischievous seductiveness. Both Gallagher and Waldron made the most of roles that offered an effective contrast to the menace of Holland's Manningham and his wife's cruelly inflicted neurosis. Nikki-Lynne Hunter achieved a believable presence as the mature housemaid, Elizabeth.
With Rep's customary high production values and strong cast, Gaslight has the potential to shine more brightly. The production has remained true to the play's period and style, but on opening night, it was still a thriller in search of greater tension and suspense. Audiences and fans of the psychological thriller will enjoy Hamilton's classic. Gaslight, ahead of its time in dealing with the issue of psychological manipulation and abuse, still resonates at a time when disturbing cases of domestic abuse and issues of mental health receive prominence. With greater attention to pace and tension, Canberra Rep's production will have you, like one audience member I noticed, sitting on the edge of your seat.