Gaslight, presented by the Shaw Festival, is an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s original play. Written by Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson, this contemporary reworking of the text is the same conventional Gothic thriller with a dramatic focus tweaked to be more in line with current sensibilities.
The core remains the same. Shut up in a house with a dark past, doubting her own sanity, a newly-wed woman is tormented by strange noises from the attic and the flickering of gas lamps when her husband goes out at night. Servants’ motivations figure prominently as secrets are revealed and she finds out her circumstances aren’t quite what they seemed.
Where this purposeful adaptation veers away is in its crucial discovery. Originally, an inspector character explained Bella’s situation to her, seeking her help in trapping a criminal. Wright and Jamieson take him out of the story, allowing the important truth to be discovered by Bella herself in a deeply satisfying process of self-actualization.
Director Kelli Fox’s production has all the trademarks of Gothic fiction: gorgeous Victorian opulence fringed with eerie shadows and proper manners masking sinister intentions. Fox and the cast fill this traditional space with tight, nuanced characterizations. Familiar clichés are imbued with urgency.
We feel for Bella (Julie Lumsden), the neurotic, apologetic wife, desperate to understand her bizarre, frustrating behaviour. Though Bella is thrust into several frightful, humiliating situations, Lumsden never falls into abject terror or misery. Her sense of humour conveys an underlying intelligence onto which both she and the audience cling.
Kate Hennig’s portrayal of long-standing housekeeper, Elizabeth, may be my favourite. Her eyes and posture betray a keen observance. Her scenes alone with Lumsden are quietly thrilling as she cleverly builds up Bella’s confidence simply by being present, attentive and aware.
As the young, prideful servant with questionable motives, Nancy, Julia Course is equally compelling. Her contempt for Bella is palpable. We distrust her, of course, but we can’t help but enjoy her snide behaviour. There is a certain exhilaration in watching her, as a lower class woman of the era, rail against her station, however immature, ignoble and ineffectual her methods.
André Morin is suitably smarmy as the husband, Jack. Even before we understand his intentions, his demeanour seems intensely cloying. Morin does a fine job of inadvertently revealing Jack’s true nature without his even realizing it.
Providing a richly textured yet gloomy living room and main hall, the walls of Judith Bowden’s set are slyly translucent. Through them, we can see people looming behind. In a subtle, motivic flourish—enhanced by Kimberly Purtell’s lighting—these figures are a spectral presence that echo the portrait of Alice hanging on the wall. She was the murdered former owner of the house and is a ghostly presence throughout.
Gaslight is a taut, stylish and gratifying thriller that hits all of its marks with only the slightest hint of a knowing grin.