Gaslight

Published April 17, 2008

Kenneth Cranham has, among his weighty list of theatrical credits, the record of playing Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls on 796 occasions. At the Old Vic, he is back in the detecting business, questioning and delving his way to the bottom of another mystery in the Peter Gill-directed version of Patrick Hamilton's Victorian thriller Gaslight. Matthew Amer was ready to be held in suspense at last night's press performance.

Cranham's Detective Rough wouldn't be out of place on a daytime murder mystery, with his blend of wit, questioning, tantalising hints and occasional minor vice; this is a Victorian plot, so he likes a lot of sugar in his tea and the occasional tipple of Scotch. He arrives at the Manningham household with a decades-old plot on his mind, to find a bewildered lady of the house believing she is following her mother on the road to mental illness. Whether there is more behind her mental decline than she thinks could prove key to Rough’s theories about an old crime.

The entire Old Vic becomes oppressive with this production. Hayden Griffin's Victorian drawing room, where the majority of the action takes place, features clutter and colours that draw the walls in around the vulnerable, while Hartley TA Kemp's subtle lighting keeps everything at a sombre level.

Oppression is key to the plot as Jack Manningham, played by Andrew Woodall, is a man who likes to be in charge. His speech, sometimes clipped, sometimes lingering on a consonant like a stalking jaguar, puts one in the mind of the classic Victorian villain, possibly one being tracked by Sherlock Holmes. Women are inferior to him, whether they are his wife or his servants – a distinction he does not feel the need to make.

Rosamund Pike, who is quickly forging a reputation as one of the West End's most dependable leading ladies following last year's Summer And Smoke, creates a Bella who is flighty and a touch melodramatic. Caught in the prison of her mind, where she believes herself to be spiralling unstoppably towards madness, she swirls and twirls almost uncontrollably around the stage in panic, wonder and distress.

While the plot is fairly linear, Bella's relationship with the two patriarchs – one the controlling man of the house, the other a sympathetic ear – is an interesting study in gender relations. Programming the production for a summer run highlights Bella's plight; on leaving of the Old Vic, it is a relief to leave behind the dark oppression of smog-filled Victorian London and into a sun-drenched Waterloo.

MA