MOST people know this play from the glossy 1944 MGM film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, with the 18-year-old Angela Lansbury (making her film debut) gaining an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress for her portrayal of Nancy the cheeky maid and the role of Rough, the policeman, somewhat glamourised to accommodate the actor Joseph Cotten.
Four years earlier, a British film version, much truer to Patrick Hamilton’s original play and with Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook in the leading roles, had that fine character actor Frank Pettingell in the role of Rough.
Following the same lines, but bringing his own distinctive personality to bear on the character, Martin Shaw’s interpretation has that same honest, down-to-earth feel as this man obsessed with finding the vicious murderer of an elderly lady 20 years before. Equipped with a very acceptable Irish accent, Martin Shaw draws a strong and expertly judged portrait of a practical rough-hewn man who has been haunted ever since he witnessed the violent scene as a young policeman and is determined the bring the cowardly and greedy offender to justice.
His quarry, Jack Manningham, has returned to the scene of his crime, still searching for the famous ruby diamonds for which he killed the old lady. Now he is attempting to drive his young wife insane so that he can search for the jewels. Although perhaps not quite suave and sinister enough, James Wilby was never short of malevolence as he cruelly took advantage of his wife Bella’s gathering doubts for her sanity, delicately portrayed by Charlotte Emmerson. He also flirted outrageously with the pert maid Nancy. who had an eye for the main chance in the hands of Georgia Clarke-Day, and was finely contrasted with Mary Chater’s loyal housekeeper Elizabeth.
Under Lucy Bailey’s direction, this beautifully balanced play was never in danger of being bogged down by overbearing dramatic tension. The dry humour between Martin Shaw’s Rough and Charlotte Emmerson’s Bella was a delight, as was the delicate balance that Charlotte kept between near hysteria and determination to keep a hold on her sanity.
While William Dudley’s main set and costumes helped to create a good Victorian atmosphere, his video images depicting the upper floors of the house were less successful in adding to the oppressively sinister atmosphere within the story. In the just over 80 years since its first production in 1938, there have been few psychological thrillers written that can match this one. It still has audiences sitting on the edge of their seats trying to anticipate the next twist and turn in the plot.