Written in 1938, Gaslight was extraordinarily ahead of its time. Even though the concept of coercive control has been acknowledged for some time, action to deal with it has been taken only in the last few years (it became a criminal offence as part of the Serious Crime Act 2015). Since then, though, the verb ‘to gaslight’ has become a trendy usage and its meaning has already spread wider than simply abuse within marriage – commentators have even accused President Trump of ‘gaslighting the world’.
All this from a thriller which is excellent of its type but whose author, Patrick Hamilton, could surely not have anticipated the context in which his work would be seen eighty years later. It opens with Jack Manningham subtly but ruthlessly setting out to destroy the composure, then the confidence and ultimately the sanity of his wife, Bella. An unknown and unexpected caller, Inspector Rough, turns out to be an ally and alerts Bella to the danger she is in.
The actress playing Bella Manningham is onstage for well over half the piece and has to present states of mind from submissiveness, through terror and hysteria, to strong independence. Tracey Nicholls is terrific in the part, conveying a huge range of emotions through not just voice and facial expressions but body language as well. She engages the sympathy of the audience – ‘Be kind to me!’ she cries despairingly to Jack – and long before the end, we have forgiven the drippy servility that she displays at the start. It is a truly exceptional performance. Only one reservation: Tracey quite rightly wants to keep up the pace, but on the first night anyway, this sometimes led her to speak her lines rather too fast, with a loss of clarity of diction.
Richard Neal brings out the monster in Jack Manningham very effectively. Powerful and authoritative in voice and movement, he dominates the scenes he is in. He almost convinces us, as he does Bella, that everything that goes wrong is her fault. But he can be charming, too, even if it is in a patronising way, as when he calls Bella ‘a good child’.
Completing a trio of thoughtful and nuanced performances in which there is not a weak link is Chris Durham, who makes a hugely believable and attractive character out of Inspector Rough. His little chuckle is particularly endearing. He, too, brings out all sides of the character: the policemen in some thrillers appear incapable of self-doubt, but Chris gives full weight to the moments when Rough is made vulnerable by events and is clearly uncertain how things will turn out.
Chrissie Neal as a loyal and homely Elizabeth, and Jemma Cable as insolent, sexy Nancy, ensure that the contribution of the servants’ hall does not let down the performances of those above stairs.
For a thriller, parts of the play are quite slow-paced, when an actor is attending to some stage business or is on stage on his or her own. Director Sam Moulton does not altogether overcome this problem, but his direction does impart plenty of natural movement to a play that has a lot of words and precious little action. Most of all, he has drawn their best out of three very talented actors.
Finally, a shout-out for the best am-dram programme I have ever seen. As well as the usual stuff, there are three really interesting, informative and well-written background articles. One of them presents the intriguing idea that Cassandra, the Trojan soothsayer who was doomed to have no-one believe her, was the first victim of gaslighting.
Gaslight continues at the Tivoli on 22 and 23 February at 7.30pm.