Domestic drama spills over into terror in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, set in fogbound Victorian London. Though Kai Fischer’s production has plenty of atmosphere, it’s not as chilling as it might be.
The play (and the film that followed) gave rise to the term ‘gaslighting’: the psychological manipulation of a person intended to make them believe they are going mad. Director and designer Fischer uses that understanding to add a frisson of anticipation and tension to the opening domestic scenes. Robin Laing’s overbearing Jack, and Esme Bayley, as his tentative wife Bella, create a sense that, after a period of difficulty, the relationship between them is slowly getting better.
The cracks soon reappear though, facilitated by Ruby Richardson, as their young maidservant, Nancy. Events become altogether more disturbing when items begin to go missing. Is Bella losing her mind?
Both Laing and Richardson play up the ambiguity of their characters brilliantly, but it is the gender-blind casting of Meg Fraser, as visiting policeman, Rough, that is the production’s cleverest decision.
Because Bayley makes the audience doubt the reliability of Bella as narrator, it makes the reality of Rough all the more questionable. Fraser handles unwelcome laughter with ease and her presence is the catalyst for a fascinating shift to the dynamic between husband and wife.
There’s a cleverness to the way Fischer’s staging allows Bella to step out of the frame. But he doesn’t deliver the red herrings and changes in direction with sufficient conviction or fully evoke the lingering paranoia that underpins the play.