Gaslight illuminates psychological abuse

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October 29, 2014

Gaslight

By Patrick Hamilton

 

Directed by Brian Richmond

Blue Bridge at the Roxy

October 21 to November 2

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Thankfully, I have never been involved in a psychologically abusive relationship, but, as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” I saw it – and heard it – last week at the Roxy Theatre.

If you think Gaslight, set in the London of the 1880s, has no relevance in today’s world, I urge you to catch this Blue Bridge production directed by Brian Richmond. Five minutes into the play, you will be disabused of that silly notion as Mr. Manningham, the abusive husband, played by Vancouver actor Adrian Hough, sets out to undermine his wife’s sanity. Hough’s demeaning tone rings with authenticity and pierces like an ice pick through the heart.

Hough wasn’t solely responsible for this chilling effect. He was given his lines by playwright Patrick Hamilton, who wrote Gaslight in 1938. Hamilton, whose father was a financially inept drunk, was raised in relative poverty (and, one suspects, abuse). His formal education ended in 1919 when he was just 15, but he published his first poem that year and kept on writing. Gaslight made him rich. After six months at the Apollo Theatre in London, the play went on to a four-year run on Broadway. In 1940, it was made into a film in England, and in 1944, MGM released the Hollywood version starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton. Bergman won her first Oscar for her nuanced performance as the abused wife.

Thea Gill, who plays Mrs. Manningham in the Blue Bridge production, does not, unfortunately, follow Bergman’s fine example. Gill’s interpretation seemed stuck in the high hysterical range. Still, when she got her revenge at the end of the play, it was a satisfying denouement.

Wes Borg, who plays Rough, the retired detective who solves the case of the husband’s long-ago murder of another woman in the same house, provided welcome comic relief as he bustled loquaciously through the mystery with a Scottish accent. (Iris Macgregor Bannerman, who played Elizabeth the maid, doubled as dialect coach.) When he handed Mrs. Manningham a flask of Scotch whiskey and said “It’ll give you faith in your reason like nothing else,” I couldn’t help but laugh.

The technical aspects of the production were mixed. The hiss of the gaslights when first lit provided an ominous touch, and the rise and fall of their light as the mystery progressed was timed to perfection. The blurred black-and-white film of a pianist projected onto the piano at the beginning of both acts puzzled me until I watched the 1944 film and discovered that the husband was a pianist. The film projection coupled with recorded music set a sinister mood and eliminated the need to have a live actor playing. Attention to these technical aspects enhanced the play’s theatricality. The sound design, however, was flawed, or else the microphones were faulty. Volume fluctuated distractingly as the actors crossed from one side of the stage to the other.

When the actors took their final bows on the night I saw the play, Hough seemed momentarily shocked as he was roundly booed. He needn’t have been. The boos were not directed at him but at his character. Booing the villain in early melodrama has a long tradition. Although the practice was less common in later, psychological melodramas like this one, Hough’s superb depiction of the quintessential abusive husband earned him this tribute.

If you need to be reminded that psychological abuse is still a problem; if you want to see an abused wife get revenge; if you want to let off some steam by booing a villain, go see this production of Gaslight at the Roxy through Nov. 2.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover. 

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