By Berit Kuennecke
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This article is over 14 years, 6 months old
Director: Peter Gill, The Old Vic, London until 18 August
Issue 316

It’s not often that you want to shoot one of the main characters five minutes after they’ve appeared on stage, but it’s an urge that’s hard to resist when watching Gaslight.

It’s not the actor’s fault; Andrew Woodall does a great job playing an unlikable husband in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 thriller. But Woodall’s character, Mr Manningham, is the personification of a vile Victorian patriarch whose only purpose in life appears to be to degrade the women in his household – routinely and indiscriminately.

He openly flirts with the maid while his wife is present and later demands that she stops behaving like a child and imagining things, which is where the main theme of the play begins.

Mrs Manningham – a good deal younger than her husband – is clearly distressed and fears she is losing her mind when she starts hearing footsteps from the top floor, an area of the house she is barred from.

Her husband actively encourages her fears and insecurities, be it by accusing her of losing letters and grocery bills or by humiliating her in front of the servants for allegedly taking a picture down from the wall and hiding it.

She makes several references back to her childhood, clearly a happier time in her life, and begs her husband to take into account her mental condition and treat her gently.

But it doesn’t take long before you start to wonder whether she is actually the far saner part of the marriage and if her “mental condition” would start to disappear if her husband did.

Up to this point the play is a nuanced study of oppression, both in terms of gender and class. Manningham infantilises his wife, but it is the maid who has to put up with his more aggressive sexual approaches.

However, when another character appears on the scene, we begin to understand that he has something even more sinister up his sleeve.

Detective Rough invites himself into the house when Manningham is away and begins to carefully interrogate Mrs Manningham about her husband’s comings and goings.

It soon becomes clear that he is far from being the respectable Victorian gentleman he likes to present himself as. Kenneth Cranham is very watchable as Rough, a determined but comical detective. Maybe his previous part in the film Hot Fuzz provided him with some inspiration for this.

I don’t want to give away the end, but let’s just say that Mrs Manningham gets to take revenge on her husband in quite a witty and satisfactory way. Those with a taste for suspenseful psychological thrillers will get their money’s worth.

Peter Gill did a very good job directing this 1930s classic, although the last scene is a bit like watching an episode of Scooby Doo.

But I thoroughly enjoyed it. Spooky stuff.

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