Mrs Manningham (Jemima Murphy) believes she is going mad, for what other explanation could there be when keys, pendants, even paintings go missing and end up amongst her own possessions.
Her husband, Mr. Manningham (Jordan Wallace), grows seemingly impatient with her inability to remember her own small thefts and strange behaviours, and threatens the visit of a doctor who will, no doubt, prescribe the same awful fate for her as befell her mother – the madhouse.
But all is not as it seems in the Manningham household, as is revealed by a kindly though somewhat motivated stranger, Rough (Joe Mcardle).
Murphy and Wallace both play their parts admirably: Murphy flits nervously about like a small bird, trying to disguise bordering hysteria with excitable cheer. Wallace is a force, ruling with restrained, smiling fury. My only criticism for both is their choice of pronunciation. It seems a decision has been made to use modern diction for certain words: ‘yeh’, ‘gonna’, ‘dunno’, sometimes dropping ‘t’s. Perhaps this is an attempt for the performers to feel more honest in what they’re expressing, but the script was written in the ‘30s after all, and throwing in contemporary pronunciation once in a while sounds anachronistic and awkward.
After an excruciatingly tense twenty minutes between Mr and Mrs Manningham in the first half, Mcardle’s Rough is a much-needed respite, and the audience seems to laugh out of sheer relief. Affable and without airs, Mcardle plays his part with a kind of likeable impatience, cutting the play’s unbearable discomfort with ease.
Throughout, we hear a low, ominous rumble, so faint I’m not entirely sure it’s really there. If this is on purpose, it’s awfully clever, gently gaslighting the audience. If it’s not, sound designer Herbert Homer-Warbeck should say it is and take all the credit.
In a way, it’s a shame that the phrase ‘gaslighting’, coined from this very play, is now in such common use, obviously because no-one should gaslight anyone, but also because you know what’s happening in the play from the get. I would be interested to see if they couldn’t condense the story slightly into a 75-minute single act, in order that the plot’s big reveal might be somewhere nearer the end, rather than half way through.
That being said, Gaslight, as directed by Imy Wyatt Corner, is still fraught with suspension and quiet terror, regardless of whether we know where it’s going to end up. On leaving the theatre, my shoulders ached from two hours of sustained panic, and gripping tension.
“hysterically funny despite its morbid subject matter”
Fans of Alfred Hitchcock will immediately recognise Rope as the source material for his 1948 film of the same name. But though Patrick Hamilton’s piece is of a slightly different flavour, it isn’t a stretch to see why it appealed so much to the Master of Suspense.
Set in 1920s London, we spend an evening in the lives of Brandon and Granillo, two students who have killed a young man named Ronald Kentley. There is no reason for the murder except to prove that they can get away with it. Brandon, the ultra-vain mastermind, refers to the deed as “passionless, motiveless, faultless, and clueless”, that is to say, “perfect”. However, Granno (as he is affectionately referred to by Brandon) is less than convinced that they are going to get away with it. Brandon has decided to host a dinner for several guests, including Kentley’s father, but to add “piquancy” to the affair, he has hidden his victim’s remains within spitting distance of the diners, in a large wooden crate in the middle of the room.
Most unusually for a piece of this kind, we start the play knowing exactly who the murderers are and, in a perverse twist, find ourselves encouraged to root for them. Brandon’s enthusiasm for “living dangerously” is infectious, and it is hard not to feel sympathy for the nerve-frazzled Granno who one suspects was never that keen on the killing at all. In a traditional suspense play, for example a whodunnit, we may not know exactly “who has done it”, but we know the formula and we know roughly what the conclusion must be (or what must be done to subvert it). So unusual is Rope’s conceit of letting us in on the secret immediately, that we are genuinely left guessing as to its trajectory until the dying seconds. To reveal the path it does take would be to give away too many plot points, but suffice to say the second half is just as surprising as the first, not always an easy task to pull off.
Rope is also hysterically funny despite its morbid subject matter; it is a testament to the cast that they are able so effectively to tread the line between humour and suspense. The central characters themselves operate as the embodiments of these two aspects of the play. Watching Graeme Dalling’s performance as the deliciously cold Brandon is like a joyride, and just as he marvels at the craftsmanship of his murder, so the audience are undeniably impressed by drama’s deft construction. Meanwhile the anxious guilt of John Black’s Granno perfectly echoes the nail-biting tension from which we are never free.
The piece is exceptionally well suited to the small space we are in; the claustrophobia of the apartment setting spreads seamlessly into the audience. The size of the place – as well as the number of people squeezed in – means that you are likely to find your view of goings-on significantly obstructed, but such is the nature of the play that this turns out to be a minor issue. Indeed, it almost serves to create the impression that we are peeping through a keyhole, seeing things that we shouldn’t be in the room next door.
Though the characters routinely reference Nietzsche and discuss over dinner the ethics of murder and war, there is no “moral” to Rope per se. We are left to draw our own conclusions from the actions of Brandon and Granno and test our own consciences against their professed lack thereof. This is fitting as didactics would undoubtedly dampen the play’s sense of dread, as well as our ambiguous relationship with the protagonists. Ultimately, though, much like the motiveless murder itself, the play aims squarely to entertain, and on that count, it very much succeeds.