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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Gaslight
Old Vic Theatre Summer 2007

Patrick Hamilton's psychological thriller was old-fashioned when he wrote it in 1938, but it is a solidly crafted piece of stage melodrama that needs only to be treated with respect to work.

And Peter Gill and his exemplary cast wisely resist any temptation to distance themselves through archness or camp. This isn't Shakespeare, but it is good dirty fun.

This is the one about the Victorian woman whose husband is unsympathetic to her fears that she is going mad, what with things disappearing, seeming lapses in memory, and the gas lamps mysteriously dimming when he leaves her alone at night.

No points for guessing what's really going on - you know this plot even if you've never seen it before, and besides the secret is given away pretty early.

Skip this paragraph if you really, really don't want to know anything at all. The McGuffin, if anybody cares, is some jewellery left in the house in a bungled robbery years ago; the lights dim because the bad guy sneaks back in when he's supposedly left and turns them on in another room; and the heroine's salvation takes the form of a half-comic retired detective who recognised the baddy from that earlier case.

For contemporary tastes Hamilton does explain things a little too quickly, and a more extended uncertainty and ambiguity might be welcome. But his way is effective - the pleasure lies not in trying to guess who's doing what to whom, but in watching the inevitable work its way out in style.

As the damsel in distress, Rosamund Pike reminds us that she is that rare bird, the incredibly beautiful movie star who actually can act. Gaslight doesn't give her as much scope to display her talent as last season's Summer And Smoke did, but she commands the stage and draws us into the fragile woman who startles herself with her capacity for strength.

My only cavil with her performance is that a late scene, in which the tables are turned, would have been made all the more chilling if she had hinted at a new and real madness in her triumph.

Kenneth Cranham could play the detective in his sleep, and it is very much to his credit that he does not, creating a rounded, comic-warts-and-all character whose energy really drives much of the play. Andrew Woodall explores all the crevasses of depravity and sadism that lie in the husband, and Sally Tatum and Rowena Cooper provide solid support.

They don't write them like this anymore, and if you come to the play with nothing but determined cynicism, all you'll see is an old-fashioned melodrama. But give yourself over to it, enjoy the skill with which it is constructed and the sensitivity with which it is played, and the slightly creaky old machine will work just fine.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Gaslight - Old Vic 2007