Gaslight, SNADS at The Exchange, Sturminster Newton

PATRICK Hamilton’s 1938 thriller, set in the late 19th Century in a London townhouse over the course of a foggy evening, is a favourite with companies professional and amateur, with productions off Broadway and in London’s West End within the last ten years.

This is surely now one of the classics of British Theatre, with strong, imposing characters that actors must relish playing. The first ones we meet in Gaslight are Sturminster stalwart Robert Cowley and Churchill Productions key member Jan Wyld, both of whom, in their separate companies, can always be relied upon to bring a truth and honesty to any character they play, from Robert’s father in Colder Than Here (for Taboo Theatre) to Jan’s Lady in the Van at Wimborne’s Tivoli, and tonight was no exception.

The opening scene was played with a sensitivity, long enough for us to see a devoted couple with husband Jack caring about his sick wife Bella, only for this apparent care to be dashed as she seems to be slipping further into the madness she fears, angering Jack and sending him out for the evening. The change in character was completely believable, so much that Jack was almost too nice, almost boring at first, so it was a great relief when he became quite nasty and headed off into the night. Wyld is at her best, and seems to be turning into Geraldine McEwan as she ages – with a wig that only added to this effect tonight.

The Gaslight of the title features heavily in the play, and credit is due to Tony Atkinson’s lighting, dimming and raising the gas lights to indicate use of a light elsewhere in the house.

Once Jack has left the house, Bella is visited by a mysterious man who turns out to be a detective, Sergeant Rough, played like a Victorian actor-manager by Tony Harrison, with a relish and panache that drew attention whenever he was on stage. Some of his earlier speeches seemed to drag a little, but he had a lot of information to get across, all part of the necessary exposition that can sometimes seem a little laboured in comparison to our modern information-gathering age. Once he had settled into the meat of the role, Harrison’s imposing voice, with its lyrical, almost velvet, quality, was a delight to listen to, and I would love to hear him read some Shakespeare, or classic poetry, such is his intonation, pitch and tone.  His character becomes the pivotal one in this story, as he helps Bella escape from her impending doom, and Harrison plays it to perfection.

The servants of the house are two maids, and the prim and proper Elizabeth, played by Ann Baseden, and the flighty and flirty Nancy, played by Joni Clowrey, each added to the plot in different ways: Elizabeth was suitably loyal to her mistress and the Sergeant, and Nancy was naughty enough to keep all of us thoroughly entertained, with a cheeky cockney accent adding to her flirtation.

Design was simple, but effective, with costume and furnishing accurate and true, and director Val Atkinson should be very proud of her cast and crew, as this was one of the best shows I have seen from SNADS; a British classic, honestly and effectively presented.


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