Rupert Young as Jack and Kara Tointon as his wife Bella. Pictures: Manuel Harlan
The New Alexandra Theatre
THE year is 1871, January, and Bella Manningham is a woman living in a twilight world on the edge of madness, a place where her memory is playing tricks and where reality always seems to be drifting away from her.
It’s a world where items go missing, seemingly hidden away by her, but she has neither explanation nor recollection leaving her husband Jack exasperated and at a loss of how to help her. Worse, her mother died in an asylum leaving Bella fearing her creeping madness is hereditary.
Then there are the noises from the top floor of their comfortable upper middle class London home, a top floor that is empty and always locked. Not to mention her husband vanishing each night without saying where he is going, and then why do the gas lights fade each evening as if something else is sharing their supply?
Jack, at first seems to be doing his best to help his poor wife, but somehow his sympathy and compassion have a hollow ring. He plays a game of carrot and stick, reward and punishment, and slowly we see him for what he is, a manipulative and controlling bully, not so much helping his wife’s mental problems as causing them.
He puts his wife down in front of the servants and flirts with their maid Nancy in front of her, and Nancy, who is openly disrespectful of what she sees as a weak mistress, needs little encouragement. She is an upstairs, downstairs and any convenient place in-between sort of girl, given half a chance.
With Bella well on her way to insanity, salvation comes in the shape of retired detective Rough, we never did learn his first name, who appears one night after Jack has set off on one of his evening sojourns, a dapper man with a tale of murder most foul, an unsolved case which has preyed on his mind for some 20 years and, with the scene thus set, Patrick Hamilton’s psychological thriller picks up the pace towards its dramatic conclusion.
Written in 1938, Hamilton has turned the Victorian melodrama into a 20th century thriller, building the tension gradually to its final scene climax. In truth, it is all a little slow to get going with an opening set in late afternoon as Bella and Jack exchange little more than inconsequential pleasantries, building up to their daily ritual of tea – this time with the treat of muffins.
Mind you Rupert Young’s Jack is hardly likable from the start, a smarmy sort who is a bit creepy even when he treats his wife well, and as his behaviour becomes more controlling and, at times, malicious, we know for certain he is nothing more than your common or garden melodrama scoundrel, but we needed his Mr Nasty to generate a bit of pace and interest.
In the second act it seems his Mr Nice Guy, relatively speaking, has gone home during the interval revealing Jack to be a really nasty piece of work and well worth the pantomime boos he gets at the end for a well-paced, nicely measured performance.
Kara Tointon as Bella Manningham
Kara Tointon is a delight as Bella. She has had a fair old run on TV over Christmas first as Maria in the repeat of The Sound of Music Live and then as sexy singer Betsey Day in The Halcyon, and she shows her versatility again in a convincing performance as the rather needy Bella, desperate to please her tormentor of a husband while being gradually consumed by madness. Her final act of mental revenge though, shows both her resilience and anger, all in stark contrast to the downtrodden, broken woman she was becoming. Cheered us up no end, shows she is going to be just fine.
Which means three rousing cheers for the excellent Keith Allen as Rough, who not only saved the delightful Miss Tointon, but brought a little levity to proceedings, finding humour in the script and its delivery which perhaps Mr Hamilton had never seen or intended. He brings a lovely light touch to the role, lightening the sombre mood of melodrama set by bullying Jack and submissive Bella and bringing the whole play to glorious life, brightening up the room whenever he appears, gaslights or no.
There is excellent support too from Helen Anderson as Elizabeth, the reliable maid who is loyal to her mistress and from Charlotte Blackledge as the flighty Nancy, the maid, who is loyal to . . . well herself really, seeing Jack, her employer at £10 a year, as an opportunity. Housekeepers came in at a hefty £16 a year apparently.
Director Anthony Banks builds the pace nicely although whether the ghostly special effects were strictly necessary is open to question, this is a thriller not a tale of the supernatural after all – still the audience gasped and jumped appropriately at them, so they served a purpose.
David Woodhead’s costumes look and feel authentic while his set design is a masterpiece, a corner-on room with a perspective heading off to a point somewhere around platform 12 at New Street Station, it looks both normal and disconcerting all at the same time. It is littered with nice touches such as edges of wallpaper lifting here and there, 19th century wallpaper paste being what it was along with damper houses. Then there is the dingy, sombre colours and that grubby, yellow tinge on upper walls and ceiling common with gas lighting. Town gas, the forerunner to natural gas for those who remember it, was not the cleanest fuel, especially allied to the Manningham's open log fires.
Howard Hudson’s lighting also deserves a mention with the clever shadows from the fire appearing whenever the gas lights are dimmed. All little details to add authenticity.
Ask any wife and she will tell you quite happily that her husband drives her mad, it’s one of our endearing charms, but in Bella Manningham’s case it seems she was right. Put a fine cast on a lovely set with a clever script and the result is a gripping piece of entertaining drama. To 14-01-17
A second chance to see, as TV would have it. Kara Tointon spoke to us last year about acting and her role in Gaslight
And with a new gas mantle
THIS latest revival of Patrick Hamilton’s hugely successful 1938 psychological thriller proves that quality still pulls in the customers, judging by the bulging first night audience at the New Alex.
And they were not disappointed as a superb cast delivered edge-of-the-seat entertainment in the chilling story of a man’s apparent wicked attempt to drive his wife mad . . . but why?
The scene is set in the gas-lit drawing room of a couple’s comfortable home in London, where the tall and at times menacing Jack Manningham repeatedly questions his rather fragile wife’s memory or actions, causing her intense anxiety since her mother had died insane.
Rupert Young gives a powerful performance as Manningham, able to switch instantly from reasonable behaviour to frightening rage and showing an uncomfortable interest in the promiscuous maid, Nancy (Charlotte Blackledge). He deserved the boos at the final curtain,
Kara Tointon, one of the stars of television’s The Halcyon, is the tortured Bella Manningham , perfectly reflecting the despair of a young woman anxious to please her husband but beginning to wonder if she really does have a problem as his merciless actions continues.
But the play, on a fine set featuring gas lights which appear to dim of their own accord, adding to Bella’s fears, is certainly not all doom and gloom, thanks to Keith Allen, playing the remarkable former Detective Inspector Rough, who had investigated a murder in the area 20 years earlier.
He has his own theories about Manningham and the mystery of missing jewellery from the past crime, and in the process provides some welcome snatches of humour to ease the tension and even produces a bottle of ‘medicine’ to help Bella, which he also swigs himself with a crafty gleam in his eye. A really smooth Mr Rough who eventually solves the mystery to everyone’s relief and satisfaction.
Billed as ‘one of the greatest thrillers of all time’, this masterpiece of suspension created the term gaslighting, which means a form of psychological manipulation and mental abuse.
Directed by Anthony Banks, it runs to 14-01-17. Not to be missed.