Review: Gaslight, The Playground Theatre
4.0stars

Our tale is set in a chintzy living room designed by Kate Halstead. The carpet is a striking pink that sends a rosy blush onto the walls. The vintage furniture is placed in a way that suggests a comfortable and intimate domestic space. 

A young woman is vacuuming the carpet. She is oblivious both to the excited chattering and the audience members tracking footprints over the freshly vacuumed floor. There are five lamps scattered about that brighten and dim with a comfortable pulse. There is nothing to suggest until the Master and Lady of the house arrive, the misery, abuse, and horror that this room is actually home to. 

Gaslight is a story about many things. It is a thriller, a murder mystery, and a domestic drama. But beyond that, it is a story about psychological and physical abuse that an innocent woman suffers at the hands of her husband. 

Jemima Murphy plays Bella Manningham, the victim and heroine of the piece. When we meet her, she is convinced that like her late mother, she too is going mad. Items left under her care vanish, at night she believes she can hear footsteps above her and her husband alternately threatens and condescends her into a pitiable state. She is thoughtfully portrayed with a quiet dignity and fragility that at times becomes almost too painful to watch. Jordan Wallace quickly establishes himself as a fearful presence in the form of Jack Manningham though he does noticeably struggle with enunciation at times and could physically and emotionally committed to the threatening nature of the character more. 

Murphy and Wallace orchestrate the emotional tone of the room with deft precision. Initial tension bristles and soon devolves into abject horror as Jack humiliates his wife into a pliant shadow of herself. Like a viper he subtly condescends her, undermines her self-confidence and drives her into near hysteria as she desperately vies for his approval. 

First presented in 1938 Gaslight was an exceptionally progressive exploration of the emotional abuse suffered by many women at the hands of their husbands. But in 2019, it is a bleak reality that most women must unbelievably still contend with in the form of partners, fathers, or colleagues. The barely contained emotion of the audience attests to this and I observe many women instinctively leaning away from Jack when he is on stage. 

A directorial choice that I am particularly grateful for during these uncomfortable scenes is that there is no gratuitous violence for emotional shock value. It makes the suggestive power of words even more impactful and portrays a difficult subject respectfully.  

Of course, Gaslight is so fascinating as a play because from a domestic drama we are unexpectedly catapulted into a world of intrigue and mystery with the arrival of an inspector following a lead from an unsolved murder. 

As Inspector Rough, Joe Mcardle underscores the looming dread with moments of comedic relief that stop the piece plummeting into total misery. He amiably asks for more sugar in his tea moments after placing Mrs Manningham in the centre of a great conspiracy, dives into peril without any real plan but shows great compassion for Mrs Manningham and is driven by the urge to do the right thing. 

He and Murphy make a wonderful duo and as the play reaches its nail biting conclusion we delight in justice prevailing and Mrs Manningham realising that she is so much more capable and brave than her oppressor would have her believe.
Gaslight is a valuable story. It is engrossing, well-paced, energetic, and a pertinent story for our times. Partial proceeds of the show are also donated to ‘Refuge’ a charity supporting victims of domestic abuse.

Gaslight is a valuable story. It is engrossing, well-paced, energetic, and a pertinent story for our times. Partial proceeds of the show are also donated to ‘Refuge’ a charity supporting victims of domestic abuse.

Gaslight is playing at The Playground Theatre until 10 November. For more information and tickets, visit The Playground Theatre website