Review – Gaslight, Old Vic, London

Wednesday 13 June 2007

WEW by GaslightAh, gaslight. Andrew spends many a happy hour meticulously petit pointing his Capri pants by gaslight.

This is not the gaslight of the Victorian age although he remembers that clearly (indeed more clearly than he remembers things that happened yesterday). No, being the environmentally-aware global citizen that he is, it’s a light generated by harnessing the copious amounts of hot air and methane he produces.

Understandable then that he was particularly drawn to see Peter Gill‘s production of that hoary old classic Gaslight at the Old Vic.

That and the fact that both Whingers fondly remember the wonderful film version which featured Ingrid Bergman, Dame May Whitty and Angela Lansbury so they were rather looking forward to it. Big mistake.

Patrick Hamilton‘s 1938 play is set in the drawing room of a London house in 1880. The cluttered Victorian set is finely realised (indeed Phil felt quite at home) but the intended evocation of psychological claustrophobia (coincidentally the theme of Phil’s decor) was somewhat lost in the barn-like ambiance of the Old Vic.

Even from row H of the stalls.

Anyway, the “plot” concerns the lady of the house, Bella (Rosamund Pike) who is being castigated by her husband Jack (Andrew Woodall) for losing things and removing pictures from the walls and hiding them and for generally turning into a basket case. And sometimes when she’s alone she thinks that the gaslight is mysteriously turning lower.

But it eventually turns out that she is not going mad – her husband is trying turn her mad!

Now if you are a bit cross that the West End Whingers have gone and spoiled the end for you, let us assure you we have not.

The denouement is actually introduced by Detective Rough (Kenneth Cranham) about 15 minutes into the first act (And there are three acts and two intervals. Although the programme only admits to one. Apparently the early previews were working out at 90 minutes-interval-20 minutes).

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

As the Whingers sat expectantly before the play began Andrew began to imagine the lights in the Old Vic were flickering. Was this the effect of a hastily downed bottle of wine before the show or was Phil twiddling with the dimmer switch? Was someone trying to drive Andrew round the twist? And if so, who could it be? We would presumably have to wait about 15 minutes to find out.

Creaky old thrillers are fine for AmDram and fun evenings out, but at the Old Vic they just can’t compete with the yawns, sighs, and creaking of the actual seats. Every time anyone shifts position a squeak competes for attention with the “action” on the stage. The Whingers made a note to buy “artistic” director Mr Spacey a can of 3-in-One for Christmas as they are into practical (and cheap) presents.

What became immediately clear is that the George Cukor et al did so much work on Hamilton’s play to transform it into the near-masterpiece that the film is – not least the inspired conceit of holding back the most exciting revelation until closer to the end than the beginning.

Regrettably, Hamilton’s play in its original form is not a “whodunnit” or or a “whatdunnit” or even a “whydunnit”. It’s just a” dunnit”. The tension doesn’t so much crank up as crank down; the psychological games are dispatched with very quickly and then there’s an awful lot of chat. Who cares about the missing gems? It’s a lot of gas and very little light.

There’s a very bizarre scene when Jack announces he is going to take Bella on a trip to the theatre, news to which she responds with almost hysterical excitement. Plot-wise this confused the Whingers as they read her enthusiasm to mean that she really was completely barmy after all.

Jack invites her to choose between a tragedy or comedy and she witters on about this at length. Phil – who suffers from a strange form of theatrical Tourettes whenever he visits the Old Vic – had to stuff his evening glove into his mouth to stop him shouting out “How about a decent thriller?”.

Things perked up a little when the bibulous detective arrived, mainly because he encouraged Bella to join him in a drink which brought Andrew round from his enjoyable snooze. After all, the programme notes describe Hamilton as “playwright, novelist, alcoholic” so maybe things were looking up.

Not so. The quite unnecessary second interval just prolonged the agony. Couldn’t the curtain just come down for a minute and a few caped Victorian figures on crutches just run round the auditorium Lord of the Rings style to add some frisson? All we got was Kevin Spacey scurrying around the auditorium presumably not wanting to be noticed but instead drawing attention to himself by wearing his cap back to front. This was scary enough.

There was talk about a dog and at one point it even seemed it might make an appearance. The Whingers assumed Mr Spacey’s pooch might be about to make an entrance to save him the bother of late night dog excercising.

We could go on, but life’s too short. The cast tried very hard to inject some energy and meaning into it but the material just doesn’t merit the effort. The big questions on everyone’s lips in the intervals were “Why revive this nonsense?” and “Whose idea was this for God’s sake?” and “Shall we go back or not bother?”

garbo.jpgPassing the huge photographs of the cast outside the Vic, Phil noticed that Rosamund Pike’s (right)was paying homage to ripping off the iconic Clarence Sinclair Bull photograph of Greta Garbo (far right). Others in the cast had had less successful bashes at the idea – hand-to-head in contemplative “I am a thoughtful actor” pose. Or perhaps they were snapped with their heads in their hands having read the script for the first time.

Each Whinger had certainly struggled to keep his own chin (both in Phil’s case) off his chest.

If Pike “wants to be alone” she may well be as Gaslight will surely fail to draw the crowds.

Anyway, after a drink in the OV bar (trying not to catch the eye of Mr Spacey lest things descend into another Warchus-type incident) Andrew headed home for a bit more fannying around his own peculiar gaslight and Phil to practise twiddling with his dimmer.


  • The programme costs a whopping four pounds. Presumably they have to pay Mr Spacey’s air fares somehow. It’s padded with VERY BIG LETTERING to the point of absurdity. There are also pictures of the cast indulging in some dancing. Since there’s none in the production the Whingers can only conclude this is part of Pete Gill’s process of “easing the actors into the period”. Apparently he has “encouraged them to examine and speak some of the poetry of Tennyson, Kipling and Matthew Arnold.” Oh dear.
  • If you go and see it and don’t remember the film structured that way either, you’re right. Refresh your memory here.

14 Responses to “Review – Gaslight, Old Vic, London”

  1. Josh Says:

    I love you so much, WEW. I for one am glad that they revived this play, just because it inspired you to write this hysterical review. If only you were a theatre so I could stand at your stage door. xox

  2. J.A. Says:

    Who needs WOS and all the other crap when there’s you to entertain? How long till a revue at the Haymarket, perhaps supported by Myra Sands and Kit & The Widow?

  3. Josh/J.A. We are blushing behind our fans, but thank you.

  4. John A Says:

    Indeed, the Whingers will soon be elevated to Blue Plaque status . Recently, I heard both Spacey and Hytner observe that Andrew and Phil should be stuffed, mounted in a glass case and so preserved in perpetuity as national treasures…

  5. Ah, you heard that too did you John A? Reading between the lines, I don’t think they were planning to await our natural deaths.

  6. Yank Says:

    Like the queer blackface you do and kind of hate it too but the detection of the Garbo photo ripp-off belongs in the queer sleuthing hall of fame.

  7. Is there a queer sleuthing hall of fame? Why weren’t we told?!

  8. Yvette Marie Says:

    I just saw gaslight last week – every time i crossed my legs my seat squealed like a stuck pig and i was THIS CLOSE to going up to K Spacey in the bar and telling him to invest in WD-40. Ridiculous. George Cukor is my hero – if i’d known that he had singlehandedly turned Gaslight-the-bafflingly-unsuspenseful-play into the RIVETING movie, then I’d have passed on this production. But, like Andrew-Whinger, i thought it was going to remind me of watching the Ingrid Bergman classic on a gloomy rainy Sunday afternoon. AS IF. I’m hoping The Last Confession will succeed in the goosebumps category where this SO didn’t.

  9. Indeed Yvette. I’m looking forward to The Last Confession too so I’m afraid it’s bound to be disappointing at the very best.

  10. Yvette Marie Says:

    Am seeing it Thursday – if you want to compare notes over interval drinks, look for a tall american in a nun outfit. And red stillettos…..

  11. blah Says:

    Thank god for this review.

    I saw this, from a rather slumped position as the evening wore on and on and then awaited the critical drubbing it obviously deserved.

    When the reviews came out and it received general acclaim I felt a little like the leading character, and was convinced the London critics had conspired in a plot to make me feel insane by praising it to the hilts.

    Big thanks to you all for spoiling their evil plan!

  12. @Yvette Marie: That sounds too good to miss but I’ll be in Greece, the home of theatre (*shudder*) on Thursday.

    @blah: Is that your real name? And yes, it was clearly some kind of conspiracy. Is Kevin Spacey really a space lizard? It’s the only explanation.

  13. tim relf Says:

    Mmmm.. you’ve presented me with a dilemma now. As a massive Patrick Hamilton fan (no one since has written hangovers as well as him!) I was planning to go and see this. Not so sure now…

  14. Yvette Marie Says:

    I know this isn’t a review for The Last Confession but I have to say it is EXCELLENT. Funky, simple sets that don’t distract from the action on stage, excellent acting from every single person. David Suchet is so damn good as the Cardinal you totally forget Hercule Poirot. A serious and gripping story that leaves you with a lot to think about.

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