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Review: Gaslight at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC

Updated: Mar 4

Review by Gemma Keliher

Queensland Theatre’s 2024 season has started off strong, with Gaslight leaving its opening night audience in awe. Adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s original 1938 thriller by Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson, this version of Gaslight sees some modern twists in character and story to sit more comfortably in the contemporary society that it plays for. The story still takes place in the 19th century London, with grand staging and costumes to match, but glimpses of more modern attitudes can be seen seeping into the gloomy setting. 

One major difference that audiences will see is the entire elimination of the detective character, leaving no one to “save the day” for our female lead. Instead, we watch as Bella, who is introduced as a fragile wife with concerning behaviours that make her unable to be a part of society at large, slowly discovers that her biggest tormentor may just be who she trusts the most, her husband Jack. Jack initially appears as the loving husband who is at his wits end with how to help Bella’s unnamed mental struggles, but with each vague disappearance and insistence for Bella to rest in their secluded home, suspicions arise as to his involvement in the strange goings on in the house and his motives for keeping Bella in a state of paranoia. 

Part psychological thriller, part murder mystery, under the wise direction of Lee Lewis this adaptation of Gaslight brought suspense, laughter, and disbelief. I felt the pacing was excellent, the narrative unfolded in a comfortable way that held tension and suspense, aided by the fact that the cast and director weren’t afraid of stiller moments. True to the thriller genre, once this play got moving, it moved fast. Within the opening few minutes Bella is accused of yet again hiding belongings, amongst her other strange behaviours. These moments and their repercussions escalate through the story, with Bella never remembering any of what she is accused of. The audience also never actually gets to witness any of these strange “incidents”, as each scene arrives precisely at the aftermath, allowing the audience to experience rather than simply bear witness to a woman’s descent into madness. We too must simply believe what we are told by Jack and the household staff, which shifts us into a somewhat firsthand perspective, giving a glimpse of what it must be like in Bella’s mind.  

I was absolutely enamored by the whole cast; with only a cast of 4 they each shone in their respective roles and commanded the room, leaving the audience bouncing between pin dropping silence and gasps. Geraldine Hakewill gave a beautifully nuanced performance as Bella, taking us through the complexities of a mentally struggling woman who begins to draw on her own power to save herself. Toby Schmitz as Jack gave an incredibly convincing performance as we watched him turn before our eyes from worried husband to someone unrecognizable with how cruel and cunning he has been. Kate Fitzpatrick as household staff Elizabeth, and Courtney Cavallaro as newcomer Nancy, both added touches of straight-faced humour to their roles. Fitzpatrick performed with ease as she navigated her character through the conflict she is unwittingly dragged into, while Cavallaro performed with such an edge to the character that is raised the tension with each appearance. 

I do love any good period piece, which meant the costume and set design were a personal highlight. Renee Mulder’s set design depicted a lavish Victorian era home, one that captures both the beauty of the house and a morose essence brought on by its haunting past. Mulder’s costumes were a perfect addition to the houses interior, looking beautiful and highlighting each character’s societal standing. Now, it would be absurd to write about a play title Gaslight and not mention the use and importance of the gas lights themselves. Being one of the largest clues in Bella’s realisations, the gas lamps and ritualistic lighting of them through the show were a constant reminder that this was still a story based in on the ideals of a bygone era. Paul Jackson’s lighting design overall fantastically aided the mystery and thriller aspect, with dimming lights, an almost constant eerie glow on the previous resident’s portrait, and an impressive storm scene working hand in hand with Paul Charlier’s sound design. 

There is something so enticing about thrillers that get people passionately theorising and reeling over shocking reveals, that feel just as satisfying even when a moment was foreseen. Admittedly I have not seen the play in its original form nor the films, but this adaptation has made me so curious to see what modern liberties have been taken and whether the story would have had the same affect with the more out-of-date viewpoints still intact. Act I very clearly demonstrated the taboo surrounding mental health and women’s “hysteria”, the power dynamics between the man and lady of the house versus the staff, and the role of men and women both in the household and in society. The main shift in Act II that brought us into the modern world felt predominantly like it came from Bella and whether through writing or direction, the intonation of particular lines brought out a whole new side of a more confident, self assured woman who starts to take off the rose coloured glasses. A welcome addition to the play being seen by modern audiences that are now all too aware of the term ‘gaslighting’.

Queensland Theatre’s Gaslight was a masterclass in storytelling, brought to life by some of the best acting, costumes, stage design and sound and lighting that I have seen recently. Every aspect of this production came together to provide a polished and gripping show, which is a credit to the entire creative team and cast. It was indeed a enthralling show that had my jaw dropping while perched on the edge of my seat. 

Image Credit: Brett Boardman


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