September 09, 2020

Joyous return of an illuminating stage hit

by Patrick Hamilton
State Theatre Company South Australia
Her Majesty’s, Adelaide.
September 8. Tickets $ 35 – $ 69.
Bookings : 131 246
Until September 19.

The first night of a show is always an event. But the opening of State Theatre’s Gaslight has put so many things into the spotlight that it is a matter for particular celebration.

When Mitchell Butel announced his 2020 program, his first for State, who could have known that seven scheduled productions would be cancelled. Lost, like a multitude of performances across the world, to the pernicious chaos of Covid 19. Or that after a $60m rebuild, the brand new Her Majesty’s Theatre would remain dark and unused for months because of pandemic.

It is still unclear what lies ahead. But in Adelaide, for the moment, we can line up in an orderly socially-distanced queue, take our seats in chequerboard formation and, for three hours, including interval, watch real people perform a play in real time.

Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight was a stage hit and the source for two successful films. It also gave us the term “gaslighting” which has been used to illuminate an array of ideological and psychological treacheries. In this production, director Catherine Fitzgerald has taken the 19th century setting of the play to render the story of Jack Manningham’s malicious deception of his wife Bella as part melodrama and part music hall.

Even before the curtain rises on Ailsa Paterson’s richly detailed Victorian drawing room, Eileen Darley, later cast as Inspector Rough, dons a top hat and cane, and in the style of the 19th century male impersonators capers and sings the cockney ditty “Following in My Father’s Footsteps”.

Hamilton’s excellent text is a disturbing study of mental cruelty and Nathan O’Keefe, as the psychopathic Manningham, brings an artful mix of dissemblance and bastardry as he bullies and deceives his wife to the edge of insanity. Ksenja Logos is also excellent as Bella, wretched in her defeat and empowered in retribution. As Elizabeth and Nancy, Katherine Sortini and Ellen Freeman remind us of the powerless indignities of the serving class, especially women.

But when Eileen Darley enters as Inspector Rough, dressed in a detective’s frock coat with waistcoat and Dickensian hat, it is as if she has walked in from another play. This Gaslight is no longer a taut psychological noir-ish thriller, it is carnivalesque vaudeville – and the hero and spirit guide is a strong, older woman supporting a sister through near-lethal domestic abuse. Darley is terrific in the role and her challenges to the villain are exhilarating.

Fitzgerald has taken risks with these stylistic liberties but this production, appropriately gaslit by Nic Mollison, with a subliminal piano score from Andrew Howard, marks a jubilant return for the company and showcases a splendid new theatre.

“Joyous return of an illuminating stage hit” The Australian, September 10, 2020, p.12.

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