REVIEW: Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton, adapted by Johnna Wright & Patty Jamieson

“gaslight (chiefly transitive) To manipulate someone such that they doubt their own memory, perceptions of reality, or sanity, typically for malevolent reasons. From the stage play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton” – definition and etymology of the word “gaslight” from Wiktionary


It’s one thing to write a play like Gas Light (first performed on Broadway with Vincent Price in the role of Mr Manningham) which then becomes a 1941 film (directed by George Cuckor, starring Angela Lansbury in her first film role, as maid Nancy). But to write it in such a way that it becomes a way to describe a kind of coercive control in the word “gaslighting” is a next-level achievement. Sure, Shakespeare invented words and phrases. But are any of them quite this potent? Do they say so much on their own?

Hamilton also wrote the play Rope, which is the basis for the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film, so he’s also not a one-hit wonder. The films of his plays are classics in their own right, but the plays themselves are mostly left to history. Gaslight is revived occasionally for the premise alone – because the act of gaslighting is at the front of modern discussions of abuse, because it’s so insidious.

The new production of Gaslight, which opened in Melbourne last night, is based on a new adaptation of the play, penned by Johnna Wright and Patti Jamieson, which premiered at Canada’s Shaw Festival in 2022.

This feminist interpretation of the text, giving the central figure of Bella more agency, follows the basic premise of Hamilton’s play but with some inventive and surprising twists. Most notably, it cuts the character of Mr Rough, the policeman who solves the mystery of some missing rubies and Bella’s supposed madness.

Director Lee Lewis crafts a very particular kind of drawing-room drama in the first act. Bella is upset about a missing painting, the next in a long line of things her husband, Jack, convinces her she has lost herself. The audience knows what’s going on from the outset, though the particulars of the plot could justify other reasonable assumptions.

Elizabeth, a long-term maid at the premises, keeps everything in good order and has just taken on Nancy, a bitingly sarcastic woman, who has it as part of her routine to illuminate all the gaslights in the house as the day fades to night. They are there chiefly to provide comic relief, as the married couple argue about Bella’s delusions.

Early on, Geraldine Hakewill’s Bella is full of dramatic poses and far-away stares, as she tries to reckon with her apparently unravelling mind. Toby Schmitz’s Jack is arch in a moustache-twirling villain kind of way. Even when they talk of good times, there is an underlying dread. And we’re in a stately sitting room with wood-panelling and period furniture and silver tea services and portraits in ornate frames. It feels like we’re watching a very old play, frozen in time.

By the end of act one, though, Bella finds her first clue about what’s really happening and the interval is full of furious chatter about what might happen next. One guy behind me decided “the butler did it” because that’s exactly what this show looked and sounded like – an old-fashioned mystery that needs a detective to point out the killer.

It’s in the second half that the show comes to life and we can see Wright and Jamieson’s more modern take on the story of a woman being sent mad by her duplicitous husband. The characters are no longer stock caricatures, but flesh and blood people in period attire. It’s a little affected, sure, and the resolution to the mystery is pure Patrick Hamilton – but in some exciting ways, the re-write justifies why this play needs to be considered again at all. Looking through a 2020s lens, the new playwrights allow the characters depth and complicated motivations that didn’t exist in the 1938 text.

I was unsure of how to take the first half, but the tone shift in act two almost works its theatrical magic to justify the quite dry opening. Hakewill is allowed to show us a layered Bella, who slowly finds her way out of the fog of delusion. Schmitz’s own charm helps to raise Jack above the early one-dimensional villain and turn him into the full-blooded misogynist by the end.

Kate Fitzpatrick and Courtney Cavallaro are having a lot of fun as the pair of maids, who know more than they are letting on – for good and bad.

Renee Mulder’s Set and Costume Design are wonderful because they get the period detail so right. You need this kind of throwback to make the story work – lulling the audience into a false sense of security: thinking this will mostly be a staid costume drama.

Paul Jackson’s lighting design is always brilliant and in this case he paints with light to suggest morning or throw eerie shadows as the night creeps in. But, of course, those gas lights dotted around the room are dreaded portents and Jackson dims those lights when the plot requires and snaps to black to keep the audience on edge.

Paul Charlier’s music and sound design add an astonishing depth, turning the drama into a thriller and giving the audience several fun jump scares across the show.

Gaslight in this form – re-written and re-contextualised – brings the play itself back to relevance. It might appear to be an old play in terms of form, but that subtle sheen and shine of a twenty-first century re-write turns it from a museum piece into an exciting thriller. It might not give you much insight into the phenomena of gaslighting, but it is an entertaining history lesson. And a fine drawing room mystery story that gets solved by the woman stuck at the centre.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Gaslight is playing at the Comedy Theatre for three weeks only and closes March 24th

Photo: Brett Boardman