A visit to the opening night of a psychological thriller based on Victorian domestic values and terrible secrets

The ingredients are all there – the atmospheric setting, the many tiered characters, the repressed emotions, the secrets… From the earliest moments, Gaslight promises so much to the capacity audience on its opening night at the Theatre Royal in Bath. And in many ways it delivers, although not completely.

Gaslight last played at the Theatre Royal back in 1986, an adaptation of the story by Patrick Hamilton that perhaps first gained public notice in the 1944 film version starring Ingrid Bergman. This most recent production takes place entirely in the living room of a four storey house in London, the 19th century home of Jack Manningham (James Wilby) and his much younger wife Bella (Charlotte Emerson). From the start, this is clearly a relationship based on male domestic dominance, with the young wife the compliant pawn to her husband’s will and fancies. However, it quickly becomes evident that there is more at play here, a dangerous game of duplicity and deceit that makes you want to shout out to the young wife to understand what is happening around her.

As the plot develops, so we are introduced to a character who appears to offer hope and salvation to the young wife in the form of a former policeman, Rough (Martin Shaw), who tells a tale of adventure and terrible deeds that Bella must either choose to ignore or embrace as a means of salvation.

Charlotte Emmerson as Bella Manningham and James Wilby as Jack Manningham (Photo: Paul-Coltas)

Throughout the acting it excellent, with James Wilby in particular increasingly manipulative and threatening towards his young wife, as the fascade of fake affection starts to fall away. Meanwhile Charlotte Emerson plays the conflict and anguish of Bella beautifully, desperate to break her domestic bonds but struggling to find the strength to succeed.

Of course the big name here is Martin Shaw and he is worth the billing with a very watchable performance as the roguish Rogue, even if the Irish character and accent does err towards the cliched, to be sure, it does, indeed it does. Even so, you can’t help warming to his character, even if the occasional word is lost under the heavily accented delivery.

The set itself is also worthy of note, with the translucent walls allowing a glimpse into the ear-wigging ways of the servants, alongside more mysterious areas of the house.

Unfortunately, where the performances and set succeed, the plot struggles. While the first half of the production builds up the plot and tension, post intermission, it fails to recover from the lull, with too little really happening as the plot drags itself towards the inevitable conclusion.

Without doubt, the two biggest errors are – without wishing to give the plot away – saved to nearly the very end, with a terribly hammy re-staging of the central crime and an unnecessary and gimicky premonition of the fate of the true criminal.

There is much to like about this production, however you can’t help but come away thinking that with a few rewrites and little less reliance on shock tactics at the end in particular, it could have been way better.

Gaslight plays at the Theatre Royal Bath until 19 October. More details at www.theatreroyal.org.uk