Other than the façade suggests The Playground Theatre is unexpectedly spacious inside, with free seat choice around a stage carpeted in Schauss pink, a matt magenta – the program shares so many secrets about the manipulating powers of this colour that coming here was worth just for learning about this. The brochure also confirms that the lead is Jemima Murphy who was brilliant in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at the Baron Court Theatre earlier this year. In Gaslight she is Bella, wife of Jack Manningham – and Jack soon turns out not to be the generous lord of the house he aims to convince everyone he is. He demonstrates his power over the staff to Bella openly but then constantly belittles also her and reminds her tactlessly repeatedly of the fact that her mother died in a mental institute; it would be easy for him to send her there anytime. Gaslight is set in Victorian London and a lot has been documented about the lunatic asylums of these eras – every time Bella is blatantly reminded of this, her thin self-esteem dwindles further. Jack’s promises are bound to tasks Bella must fulfil but the receipts or jewellery he asks for seem to vanish every time she starts her searches. Therefore, Bella sits at home with little stimulation and much frustration, doubting her own sanity, depending and relying on her husband’s good will and on servants who can only split their loyalty temporary.
The unannounced visit of an inspector promises some distraction but soon he reveals that Jack is suspected to be a fraud and worse, involved in a crime happening at this very address years ago. The theories of the inspector seem wild first but then appear scarily logical. He gives Bella instructions to help him to prove these – at the same time he is blind to the fact that he puts her in real danger and in an unbearably patronizing tone this man seems yet another one who sabotages Bella’s confidence.
Without giving too much away, allow me to share that Bella gets out of the house and the marriage which imprisoned both her personality and her sanity. But what happens next to her, I wonder. In those days, was there space for a single woman with not much but a broken marriage behind her? Did she marry the obnoxious inspector due to a lack of choices or became a worker in the East End of the industrial revolution? Did she land on the street? I leave the Playground Theatre worried; Gaslight premiered at Richmond Theatre in 1938 and its title led to the verb “to gaslight sb” meaning to drive someone mad through manipulation. Loneliness and psycho terror (openly or rather subtle) are social problems still around and hit those financially depended most hard. Let’s keep an eye out for them I pledge while I head back to the Tube station. Grenfell reminders greet me on every street corner.
Written by Patrick Hamilton
**** out of 5 stars
Played until November at The Playground Theatre