Gaslight: a Victorian Gothic comes to life in all its horror

Gripping, tense, and powerful.

WHAT: SUDS’ Gaslight
WHEN: 8-12 March & 15-18 March

WHERE: Cellar Theatre

Watching SUDS’ performance of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, I’m reminded atmospherically of another story by a similar name.

The 1989 Doctor Who serial Ghost Light similarly takes place amidst Victoriana, the women of the household captured in the manipulations of a man with gentlemanly appearance yet controlling character. An investigator, an of Gaslight’s Kate Rough, similarly appears to shake the household to its foundations as mystery, tension and warped reality are brought to resolution.

Of course in Doctor Who this investigator is the Doctor himself, but I find this comparison appropriate. Caitlyn Blackmore’s performance as Kate Rough, adapted from the original Gaslight’s male protagonist, evokes the twinkling playfulness of the best Doctors. In one moment she is rapt by the recollections of Anita Donovan’s Bella Manningham; in another Blackmore is brilliantly comedic, hyping a medicinal cure for doubt by offering Bella a hipflask.

This is but one example of Gaslight’s penchant for playing actor against actor in a series of rotating double-acts. The pairing of Rough and Bella also provides Donovan with the opportunity to explore the psychological damage that’s been inflicted upon her by husband Jack, played by an impeccable Joshua Shediak. In Rough’s presence Bella feels increasingly able to explore the idiosyncrasies of her relationship and express her doubts, cycling emotionally from battered timidity through to inquisitiveness and defensiveness.

The staging of Gaslight perfectly represents the emotional claustrophobia of Bella. A front row audience member will find themselves sitting on the edge of a carpet — set dressing, for the stage is an isolated room in an old Victorian house lit only by modest stage lights and the orange glow of candles. This creates an eerie and gothic atmosphere. In quiet moments, the small stage appears smaller still as characters converse by candlelight.

However, it is Joshua Shediak’s portrayal of Jack that stretches the tension of an already tense production to its breaking point. Shediak’s Jack comes across as physically predatory, occasionally circling the female characters on the small stage, clamping his hands onto their shoulders in acts of possessiveness. Yet he projects control in how casually he acts as well — offering to take his wife Bella to the theatre, then ringing in servants and humiliating her publicly. When seated, Shediak almost lies in the chair, maintaining a comfortable grip on his household. When Shediak shouts at Donovan’s cowering Bella and slams the lid of a nearby bureau, it is genuinely disturbing in the otherwise silence of the Cellar Theatre.

Gaslight, with its themes of manipulation, reality and control is a classic Victorian gothic. Director Max Baume’s understanding of this text has ultimately created a precise tension and allowed its horror to retain maximum impact in this very successful production.