Patrick Hamilton’s play, written in the dark days of 1938 with the threat of war looming, is set over half a century earlier, when husbands had power over their wives in a way that is unconscionable today. ‘Gaslight’ is a powerful, seminal study of the disastrous impact of psychological manipulation and intimidation that has given rise to the term ‘Gaslighting’.

From the moment we settle into our seats at Theatre Royal Windsor, William Dudley’s set design draws us into a distorted world where domestic ‘normality’ is subverted. Sharply angled walls and ceiling slope in towards the back of the stage where we can see the outline of a staircase through the gauzy translucent screen of patterned wallpaper. At the front of the stage, the eerie orange red glow from the window is reflected in the flame colours of the fireplace. The Victorian furniture of this quiet middle class domestic interior is set dancing to maddeningly sinister fairground ride music. Then the auditorium plunges into darkness and silence before opening to the scene of Bella (Charlotte Emmerson) tiptoeing nervously around the room as her husband Jack Manningham (James Wilby) lies napping on the chaise longue.

The tension between husband and wife is apparent from the start. Bella’s nerves are as taut as violin strings on the point of snapping. It’s intensely uncomfortable watching the painful interplay between this couple as Jack baits his wife, inviting the coquettish maid Nancy (Georgia Clarke – Day) to despise Bella as he compliments the young servant’s looks and asks her to give her mistress tips on how to improve herself. Jack dangles the promise of a theatre trip in front of Bella and vindictively whips it away after accusing her of hiding domestic items; a picture, a brooch, a watch, a bill. Charlotte Emmerson’s portrayal of the deeply unhappy Bella is heart-rending, she emphatically insists she didn’t do any of the things Jack claims she did but he holds the reigns of power. He undermines her by drawing on her fear of dying mad as her mother did. She pleads with Jack “If I am gong mad, treat me kindly” but Jack tells her she repulses him and threatens to have her locked away before leaving her alone to brood her fate.

When Jack leaves the house, Bella receives an unexpected visit from a stranger. Rough, an Irish detective played with jovial lightness by Martin Shaw, tries to gently but firmly persuade Bella to believe in a dark tale of sinister secrets that Jack has been hiding from her. Rough combines compassionate sensitivity with respect for Bella’s acute observation. He entices her to enjoy a glass of healing whiskey with him as they ponder how indict Jack and help Bella escape from his evil plans. Rough is the antithesis of Jack and provides the ‘medicine of a sane mind’ that Bella has been appealing for.

Charlotte Emmerson plays Bella with nuanced depth, her raw vulnerability and mental agony balance against a keen intelligence and strong will to survive. We are on the edge of our seats with bated breath as we will Bella to wriggle free from her tortuous prison of despair and self-doubt and save herself.

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