March 10, 2024 by Alex First
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A Melbourne theatre review by Alex First

Toby Schmitz and Geraldine Hakewill play husband and wife in the 19th-century psychological thriller Gaslight.
Photo by Brett Boardman Photography

We’re in the 19th century.

Trusting Bella Manningham is fragile.

Not long after getting married, she met her now husband Jack, in Switzerland, and they connected instantly.

They moved into an old house – complete with dark, wood-panelled walls – in London, but this is a home with a nefarious history.

Its previous owner was murdered in a robbery gone wrong, the target of which was a precious ruby necklace.

Jack and Bella have a taciturn but dutiful housekeeper, Elizabeth. They have also just engaged a rough-around-the-edges maid, Nancy.

Bella’s mother was institutionalised and it appears that she is heading down the same path.

A tentative Bella is constantly losing things, including her mother’s long stringed pearls and hearing distressing noises. The sitting-room gas lamps dim for no apparent reason.

Jack is out every night attending to business at the club he frequents. She hates being left alone.

Bed rest isn’t helping. She appears to be going mad.

Jack tries to be understanding, but his patience is being tested.

The question is, what is really going on?

Is Bella’s unscrupulous husband slowly but surely driving her to insanity and, if so, why?

Are we talking madness or manipulation?

Johanna Wright and Patty Jamieson have adapted Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play into a mouth-watering psychological thriller, in which nothing is as it seems.

The contention is well established in the first act, as Bella presents as a forlorn figure.

But an important “find” just before interval sets up an intriguing second act, in which the truth outs.

Geraldine Hakewill’s heart-on-sleeve performance as Bella is compelling. We feel her angst.
Toby Schmitz does disingenuous well, positively revelling in his gaslighting.

Kate Fitzpatrick’s humourless showing as the housekeeper has instant impact.

So, too, the introduction of Courtney Cavallaro as the uppity maid.

Scenic and costume designer Renee Mulder has done a fine job channelling the Victorian era setting, replete with elegantly tailored period costuming.

With suspense the name of the game, music, sound and lighting are integral to the work.

In turn, Paul Charlier and Paul Jackson are responsible for deftly tightening those screws.

Director Lee Lewis capitalises on the shifts in mood and tone to positive effect.

I found myself reflecting on the world’s longest-running whodunnit, namely Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.

The sensibilities are similarly beguiling.

And, let’s not forget that in this toxic world of social media, the subject matter – gaslighting (distorted reality and questioning judgments and intuition) – is especially pertinent.

Two and a half hours, including a 20-minute interval, Gaslighting, the play, is a fine watch.

It is on at the Comedy Theatre until 24th March 2024.

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