Torture is a chameleon. We think of it as mainly physical, but it can also be psychological, or these two facets can combine. Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight is what one would now define as a psychological thriller, with its story of three people all obsessed, though in very different ways.
The central character is young wife Bella Manningham (Kara Tointon), increasingly aware that her mother (who died lunatic in an asylum) may have left her a poisonous legacy. Her apparently concerned husband of seven years Jack (Rupert Young) has his own agenda, which may include his pert parlourmaid Nancy (Charlotte Blackledge).
Retired police sergeant Rough (Keith Allen) sees connexions to a horrific but unsolved murder several decades ago. He sees a chance to bring the case which still haunts him to its proper conclusion, but for that he needs a reliable ally.
Many of us will have seen this 1938 drama before, whether on stage (it was a repertory theatre favourite) or in one of its screen adaptations. The 2017 director has to allow his audience the chance to preen itself of seeing what is coming while maintaining the suspense and conveying theatrical conviction. In this Anthony Banks succeeds splendidly.
He’s assisted by David Woodhead’s box-set, cleverly lit by Howard Hudson, and by Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, an eerie combination of the natural and the suggestively sinister. All the cast give committed performances with a many-nuanced and vocally inflected one by Tointon just having the edge on Allen’s apparently bluff policeman.
Blackledge’s Nancy is a study of a girl on the make, balanced by Helen Anderson’s portrait of the housekeeper Elizabeth. I think I would have liked Young to be just a trifle more the charming – as well as apparently concerned – husband in his early scenes with Tointon; it’s one nudge in the audience’s ribs too many.
If you’ve never sen Gaslight or have dismissed it as an old warhorse well passed it prime, then go to see this staging. It achieves balance – and that’s much rarer in the theatre these days than one might imagine.
Four and a half star rating
Gaslight continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 18 February with matinées on 15 and 18 February. The national tour continues until 18 March.