Review: Gaslight – Oldham Coliseum

Oldham`s Coliseum Theatre is a true Regional Theatre right in the heart of its community and has a very large and loyal following. Therefore, what might seem tothose not “on the inside” a rather odd choice of play to open a rather odd season is in fact a very clever and solid choice. Written in the late 1930s, but set 60 or so years earlier in the height of Victorian England, this is a classic British Noir, long before the word came to be used for such a style.

Moody and tense are the two words which would most aptly describe Hamilton's mystery thriller, Gaslight; and those two words are just as apt at describing the direction by Robin Herford in the Coliseum`s faithful interpretation of it.

The play centres around the Victorian idea that the man is master of the house and the woman most definitely subservient, and although in this household, things are most definitely not the norm – a young servant girl flirting outrageously with the master and undermining the lady of the house, whilst the lady of the house is to all intents and purposes losing her mind – it is those things which are slightly out of place in our remembering from our history lessons on Victorian Society that really serve to highlight how very different and to our 21st Century viewpoint, how terribly wrong, their lives must have been.

However, I do not wish to give away the plot; such as it is, is thin on the ground and extremely predictable – so suffice to say that and no more.

The cast are superb. Damien Matthews gives us a very real and calculating Mr. Manningham. We can tell right from the start that all is not as it seems with him, and yet he plays the lights and shades of his character so effortlessly. The only thing here is that for me, he didn`t really look quite old enough. He needed another 10 years on his shoulders for me to really believe his past, since he looked only to be 30- something on stage.

His wife, Mrs. Bella Manningham, was played in this production with a touch of Ophelia, by Catherine Kinsella. Again a beautifully measured interpretation and I really loved the wonderful balance effect created in this play. The play starts with Mr Manningham as the strongest and as the play progresses, Bella becomes stronger and stronger as he becomes weaker and weaker, and her final speech alone to her husband is the best I have ever seen this done. Admittedly I have thus far only seen amateur productions of this play, this being the only professional one – but nevertheless – that speech isn`t an easy one, and it grabbed me exactly where it should have done.

Quite a bit of comedy (and light relief) was found in the character of aging detective Rough, played here with a glint in the eye by Paul Webster. A colourful character and one which can, if not too careful, become comedic and a parody; not here. It was delightfully interpreted, firm, solid and totally believable all the time. I didn`t believe his costume came from the 1870s though!

The flirtatious and rather unconventional maid servant was played with relish by Amy Gavin, and Sue Twist played the more elderly, senior, dour and respectful servant Elizabeth.

The one thing I did not understand was the set. Designed by Michael Holt, we were presented with three large flats decorated and dressed superbly with authentic looking trinkets, pictures and plants. The interior of this was also full and busy with authentic looking furniture. So much attention to detail, and all very good. So why then, were there large black gaping gaps between these flats, and brass pipes showing from them? It looked odd, wrong and didn`t seem to fit at all. And the omnipresent smoke added nothing. I doubt very much, not even in a Victorian household, that that much smoke would have pervaded the atmosphere. I would also have preferred there to have been a curtain. This is a Victorian drama, and having an open set with cast walking in and out during blackout again spoilt the atmosphere for me.

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