Gaslight’s grip

Gaslight (Growl Theatre)

Windsor School of the Arts

May 6 – 21

Gaslighting is a deceptive psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or gaslighter, on a single victim over an extended period. And before the term became embedded in our modern vernacular, there was the 1944 film “Gaslight”, based on Patrick Hamilton’s enduring 1938 British psychological stage thriller.

The play’s inspiration as terminology for this type of emotional abuse term is clear from the initial scene of Growl Theatre’s production, when, in an 1880 upper middle class, dimly-lit drawing room, the controlling Jack Manningham (Troy Bullock) questions his flustered and confused wife Bella’s (Vivien Whittle) actions. “What are you doing Bella?” starts a series of questions, demands, dismissals and accusations of confusion of her mind. As the room’s gaslights are turned up, his trifling inappropriate commentary to serving girl Nancy (Sara-Maree Sommerville) shows how he really is a horrible character and Bullock makes him an appropriately loathsome epitome of destructive toxicity, given that he is using his complete authority to slowly, deliberately drive his wife insane… that is until a stranger comes to the house while Jack is on another of his mysterious outings.

The sinister story’s 2.5 hours’ duration is a long time to spend in the company of Jack and his domestic abuse, especially given that the entire play is set in one room over a single evening, however, Brendan James and Charles Langford’s direction of its three tightly-structure acts (with two intervals), ensures that engagement is maintained. Reprieve from Jack’s wicked psychological torture comes thanks to the arrival of Detective Rough (Brad Ashwood), a whiskey-wielding saviour who encourages the close-to-breaking-point Bella to see the light (#nopunintended). The backstory unfolds as the retired police detective explains the reason behind her notice that when her husband leaves the house each night, the gaslights in the drawing room mysteriously dim, however, as the lights go down in mark of the show’s first interval, an ominous atmosphere settles along with his warning that “you are married to a horribly dangerous gentleman”.

Solid performances elevate the production. Marion Jones projects the kindness of dutiful servant Elizabeth in her few scene appearances, while Sommmerville’s giggling Act One cheeky flirtations as the saucy Nancy, effectively foreshadow things to come. And, as the charismatic Inspector Rough, who puts the pieces of the Manningham puzzle together, Ashwood is triumphant in delivery of some of the script’s best lines. Bullock is solid as the stern and overbearing Jack. Indeed, the powerful intimidation of his patronising presence as he strides about on stage contributes much to the tension of Act Three.

This is, however, Bella’s story and appropriately, Whittle’s show. Whether bustling about in fleeting, naive belief that all is well or blubbering after being raged at about ambiguous issues apparently of her imagining, she is simply wonderful as the vulnerable, tormented and humiliated Bella. And her depiction of Bella’s genuine joy at discovery that her truth is indeed valid is wonderfully portrayed, with empathy but not overplayed.  

“Gaslight” is a gripping journey to a satisfying conclusion, made all the better by its bring of the work’s feminist themes to the forefront. The melodramatic thriller is full of suspense and surprise (beyond its contemporary relevance), but also humour and fun, and it is easy to appreciate why so many shows of its Growl Theatre season are sold out.

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