Theatre in Wales

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Accomplished and Rewarding Revival at Theatr Clwyd Cymru

At Theatr Clwyd

Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Gaslight , Emlyn Williams Theatre, Theatr Clwyd Cymru , April-13-11
At Theatr Clwyd by Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Gaslight An unusual thing happened at this performance of “Gaslight.” The audience fell silent minutes before the lights went down in Mold’s Emlyn Williams Theatre. The silence of anticipation was broken by a loud ticking clock in Matthew Williams' sound design. A keening sound of wind added to the atmosphere of frisson.

A brave decision had been taken to stage “Gaslight” in the round. Normally a production has the familiarity of a detailed Victorian interior. Here Mark Bailey has given the space a desk, a table, a sofa. But the striking part of his design is a ceiling suspended over the performance space. Painted a kind of mottled grey it must measure at least fifteen foot square. Hung at a thirty-degree angle and slightly tilted laterally it creates to perfection the air of oppression that the script calls for.

This physical barrier obscures much of the studio's usual overhead lighting. It is the magic of theatre that how Nick Beadle achieves his lighting effects is beyond me. There is a corner light, and the set has a double-bulbed ceiling light, a desk and table light. What the lighting design achieves is to throw corners of the room into semi-darkness. In our age of round-the-clock illumination pressure groups campaign on behalf of city children who have never seen the stars. This staging is a reminder that gaslight, although an industrial marvel of its age, still presided over great zones of dark. After re-seeing several sets at the “Transformation and Revelation” exhibition “Gaslight” is a reminder just how good is design at Theatr Clwyd Cymru.

“A Victorian melodrama” explains one audience member to another as they enter. That is not true. “Gaslight” may come with associations of Ingrid Bergman and an afternoon slot on Film Four between commercials for debt consolidators, Stannah stair lift and equity release. But it is not melodrama. The picture of domestic oppression is psychologically acute and the emotions on stage are real and not contrived for purposes of plot.

David Thomson, that polymathic yet maverick writer on film, has a few words for “Gaslight” author Patrick Hamilton in his thousand-pager “Have You Seen…?” “A major novelist”, he writes, “who can stand comparison with Graham Greene, and with Harold Pinter, on whom he was a big influence.” Within a few minutes of the opening Simon Dutton's Jack Manningham can give the word “muffins” an ominous twang. Later on a line to Remy Beasley's Nancy “Can you walk around like a cat?” gets a phrasing that is both sonorous and sinister.

Welsh dramatists are not that strong on villains. A rounded villain makes a narrative. There is no violence on view but the language and the staging in director Kate Wasserberg's tight, taut production are just as threatening. To turn your back on someone is used more as a metaphor than as a physical stance. Here Simon Dutton does just that. At two feet of distance from the audience in his black frock coat and with a face of stone he is a frightening wall of hostility and disdain to wife Bella. The character’s language too shuttles constantly, from the fake endearing to the manipulative. The patronising “There's a good child” can jump to the formal “Madam” to the contemptuous “You half-witted thing.”

Catrin Aaron has a huge part. In over two hours without an interval she is off stage for not more than a couple of interludes. The time-span of the action is only an evening and a night but covers the span of emotion. At a fraught time her fingers splay out in agitation. In a beautiful moment her whole face lightens when her husband's treachery is revealed.

Patrick Hamilton has given his retired but still active policeman Sergeant Rough a wry humour in the writing. It is a clever offset to the grimness of the situation and Llion Williams milks it to the full. On enquiry about his offer of a drop of liquid medicine he says “It comes from Scotland, somewhere between ambrosia and methylated spirits.” A detective of some renown he has missed out on two vocations. “One was to be a gardener, the other a burglar.” As he attempts to prise open Manningham's desk “There's nothing” he says “a lock appreciates like kindness.” He comments on his “saucy shirt.”

The two servants, Nancy and Elizabeth, are drawn in as co-conspirators on opposite sides. Betsan Llwyd's Elizabeth is a performance of a seasoned veteran. Remy Beasley, a 2010 RWCMD graduate and former NYTW member, gives the character her edgy slyness. It is done with no more than a sideward flick of the eye, an upward turn of the lips. It is a performance of confidence in a production of great confidence.

Patrick Hamilton's “Rope” has been revived at Chichester and at the Almeida two years ago. “Gaslight” proves well worth the revival, not just for its tautness of form, which was a given for a play in 1938, but for its intensity. This production has proved something of a box-office hit, a success well warranted.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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