[Review:] GASLIGHT, The Playground Theatre, London.
On entering the house, the atmosphere is solemn and cold. The set, its furnishings, suggest that this is the house of an upper-class and affluent family. This is further accentuated by an interaction between a reluctant servant, Nancy (Grace Howard), slumped in an armchair — most symbolically, the Mistress’s armchair — and her boss, Elizabeth (Rebecca Ashley), who quickly rushes her on to vacuum the room. Her command, alongside her harsh, supervisory glares, quickly and productively introduces us to a theme of subservience and submission. Yet, within this overture, I find my first disappointment.
There is an enormous lack of naturalism in the theatre of late, something my recent reviews have dealt with consistently. This performance is no different, and its overture serves as a precursor to the fallible naturalism we will see throughout its entirety. Elizabeth’s command is gesticulative, almost melodramatic; it is a visual representation of an interaction rather than a veritable interaction. Moments like this between Nancy and Elizabeth are repeated sporadically throughout the performance, and it causes for a bizarre overlay of style. I imagine that director Imy Wyatt Corner did not wish to add any further dialogues or lines, however slight, to the script (text by Patrick Hamilton), yet this is a most fallible and weak decision if true. There is no reason why this and other interactions could not have been more naturalistic. Even if these moments were necessary to remain silent, Elizabeth could have given a strict, implicit stare or a sharp suggestive gesture, rather than an over-energised performance of mime.
Nancy then starts to vacuum, yet this remains limited to one particular area of the floor. Would she really continue to vacuum the same spot for such a prolonged amount of time? Would she not either start to vacuum but only until Elizabeth leaves, or complete the entire errand but with lethargy and reluctance? If she was so unenthused by her chores, I doubt she would take up so much of her time running the errand so carelessly. I hope that it is clear how these small, seemingly insignificant moments demonstrate a profound lack of awareness of both realism and naturalism. Visually, this is a wonderful overture, yet its content is drab and ineffective. Nothing should be staged as a filler, especially the first few moments of a performance; everything must have pertinence, poignancy and purpose.
On to the main action of the play. We are introduced to the world of the play by Elizabeth who states that the story takes place in the late 19th century. Straightaway, I have issues. Why, for costume (styled by Katie Tucker), are there trench coats, polycotton dresses, a modern interpretation of an Elizabethan top for Nancy and, later, velvet jackets? For set (designed by Kate Halstead), why is there a desk lamp, a glass photo frame (containing artwork equally incongruous with the time period) and a filing cabinet? There are many, many inconsistencies in regards to the time period that really force a stretch of the imagination.
This stretch becomes rather extensive. We are asked to imagine that the lamps dotted around the room are all, in fact, gaslights, that the filing cabinet is actually a bureau. I fail to understand why either the script was not adapted to meet the physical and material reality of the performance or vice versa. Even the smallest of props — a coloured newspaper, for example (coloured press and images in newspapers not appearing until a century later) — collides with the world we are told to imagine. And this was something identified by quite a large number of perplexed audience members, besides me. The only thing remotely Victorian was Elizabeth’s high heel.
Then, to add insult to injury, we have the acting. I have religiously shied away from using the word ‘terrible’ to describe an actor’s performance, but there is simply no better adjective to describe Jordan Wallace’s portrayal of Jack. Wallace had no awareness of pace, rhythm or tone, ignoring the quality of language in his lines. He would also speed through these, not leaving enough time for their impact or organicness. An example of this is when Jack asks Elizabeth if anything is missing in the room, meaning, of course, the portrait he himself has hidden. Before Ashley had time to even tilt her head, Wallace immediately moved to his next line, asking her what she had noticed in her scan of the room. He was utterly unable to play off of the other actors and assumed incongruous, modern traits, like sniffing, tilting his head or kissing his teeth. These traits progressively became his sole characteristics, particularly when reacting to other actors. Character profiles should deepen and, in the case of this play, darken and become more mysterious, not blander and more predictable.
Jemima Murphy’s characterisation of Bella was only slightly stronger, her versatility being primarily rooted in more stage time and more varied lines. Her upright posture, gasps and shaking head became very much overused. Whilst she had a slightly better grip on the naturalism in the delivery of her lines, this was still nowhere near perfect. The most polished of the cast remained Joe McArdle, who clearly had a very clear grasp on his character, demonstrating good capability. Yet, there were still aspects of his performance that seemed repetitive and ill-conceived as well, most notably his repetitive arm gestures when explaining things to Bella or his constant running to and fro to retrieve his jacket for no purpose whatsoever but to stick it somewhere else in the room. His cockiness, which ultimately transformed into a comedic and, in this way, an effective and his most endearing trait, was still rather superfluous, for me, though I do understand that these last two remain as editorial or directorial issues.
In other words, both the writing’s character development and the actors’ characterisations were extremely poor. For new writing, I normally consider the playtext itself, but as this play is a revival, it would be unnecessary for me to do so. I would, however, urge director Imy Wyatt Corner to adapt certain areas of the text that make it seem less potent or more whimsical. Bella, for example, is represented from the very beginning as far too malleable; it seems unlikely that — or, rather, unclear as to why — Bella would so readily see herself as “mental” and believe everything Jack says, having a “mental mother” not quite being sufficient reasoning alone, or sufficiently drawn from. There is no progression; we do not see what makes this abuse plausible, how, in such little time, it has gotten to this level of manipulation and why Bella is so subservient and mouldable to a husband she has practically just met and knows very little about. There needs to be something far stronger and demonstrative to contextualise this manipulation.
Suddenly, there is a leprechaun, dressed in green, searching for treasure and offering Bella whisky. I relate him to a leprechaun because of how abruptly and impertinently he is thrown into the narrative — much like how I introduce him here — as though a mystical, omniscient figure whose appearance retains no seeming relevance or likelihood. This element plays into a very dated and overdramatic style of theatrical performance which seems most irregular on a stage today, especially with the realistic and undramatic setup in which this performance births it. I would be careful to consider how the visual aspects of a performance combine with acting style to generate [in]coherency. With Wallace and Murphy’s acting styles, however disparate and unnaturalistic, aiming deliberately towards realism, this shift in performance style becomes most off-putting.
The theme of abuse remains original in the manner in which it exposes itself, yet this is squandered by surrounding, vapid content. There remain many features Corner could omit. For example, Jack’s comparisons of Nancy and Bella’s attractiveness are very particularised and effective, yet Jack’s sexual interaction with Nancy is incredibly unnecessary and subtracts from the narrative, again a feature of a dated form of theatre. It would be better to see Nancy as a mere pawn in Jack’s games, as having no significance to him whatsoever, just a tool to use to toy with Bella’s mind.
But more importantly than features such as this, to pair manipulation and emotional abuse with the case of a jewellery thief is most counterproductive to what Corner states is her cause of interest in this play. This is not a harrowing representation of abuse, this is not a text which enlightens, exposes, educates or vilifies, it is a text which simply uses a woman’s abuse as one of several malicious traits of an abhorrent, thieving villain. It does not give us insight into any contemporary reality but, instead, appropriates suffering for intrigue and depth of plot. Failure to edit is failure to perfect.
All in all, this performance remains incredibly unsure of itself, containing confused styles, content and materials. The acting is, unfortunately, mediocre at best, and the text provides a dated view of women, mental health and inspector drama. I would urge Corner to consider both the messages and the particularity of the text more carefully, to force a better articulacy from performers and from the text.