A Victorian Domestic Noir – Gaslight

Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight is a classic domestic noir, performed with careful consideration by the Pymble Players. The English novelist and playwright wrote Gaslight in 1938. After its popularity with the resulting plays and the 1944 Hollywood film, ‘To Gaslight’ became synonymous with the meaning of someone psychologically manipulating another for their advantage, to make them doubt their memory, perception of reality and their own sanity.

Gaslight, directed by Joy Sweeney, is set in Victorian England. It revolves around the Manninghams – Jack and Bella. From the first introduction to these characters, we see an upper-class, seemingly happy couple. They are in the drawing room, where we subtly recognise wealth in the Manningham’s furniture and locked fold-up wooden writing cabinet. This is where tea is served in dainty teacups by the servants, a place where they can engage in relaxing conversation.

However, things do not remain relaxing for long. We soon see Jack, portrayed by Nick Roberts, turn from being a supportive and loving husband into an aggressive and accusatory bully. This flip-of-a-switch was acted with such credibility that it took the audience by surprise, which is how director Joy Sweeney wanted to present this psychological abuse “to create a feeling of severity”.

Amelia Conway’s fragile portrayal of Bella is outstanding, and as she goes from being joyfully excited by the invitation from her husband to attend the theatre to having him rescind it, we witness the disintegration of her mind. When she is victimised and scorned by Jack, we flinch. When Jack abruptly leaves the room, we feel his weighty presence in Bella’s nervous disposition.

There are clear delineations of class and power in this household.

The servants have different personalities, and both play a significant supporting role with strong performances. Georgia Drewe’s Nancy is bold, teetering on defiance towards her mistress. Kate Kelly’s Elizabeth is a strong, motherly and caring woman, reminiscent of perhaps a governess in another period drama.

As the play progresses, a stranger enters and begins to unravel a twenty-year mystery involving the house and the characters within. Retired Detective Rough, portrayed with finesse by David Kirkham, brings a sense of much-needed comedic levity to balance out the sharp points in a play involving domestic abuse. When explaining his visit to Bella, David’s Detective Rough, particularly during the first act, was a guiding narrator of the unfolding past. Therefore, his script was noticeably long, and David handled this task beautifully.

Gaslight is more of a slow burn than a thriller, where the audience is exposed to the intricacies of a mystery as it is revealed. It slots into the era of Agatha Christie, where we examine each character and try to figure out motives.

The cast’s wardrobe, by director Joy Sweeney, packaged up the Victorian era and captured the upper class wholly, down to the dress ruffles, long heavy capes and expensive hats.

Sound design by Geoff Jones kept the audience’s attention and ratcheted up the uneasy atmosphere throughout the play.

Gaslight highlights the domestic abuse darkness that lives behind closed doors, and though set in London in the 1880s, it remains as relevant and prevalent in modern society today.

Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

Season: 1st -26th November 2023
Pymble Players – 55A Mona Vale Road, entrance via Bromley Ave

Photographer: Daniel Ferris

This review also appears on It’s On The House, or check out more reviews at Dark Stories Theatre Reviews.