Melissa Blease reviews Gaslight, starring Martin Shaw, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 19 October

What have Donald Trump, the current Conservative government, certain Strictly Come Dancing/Love Island contestants and Matilda’s evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull got in common? They’ve all been accused of being arch gaslighters: masters of the art of psychological manipulation intended to make their opponents, adversaries or – worse – their victimised partners question their sanity. But the original gaslighter is still the worst.

Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play focused on the sinister, highly dysfunctional relationship between manipulative authoritarian Jack Manningham and his confused, exhausted wife Bella. In 1944, director George Cukor turned Hamilton’s taut psycho-thriller into a film starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten (we’ll explain the third wheel in the creepy triumvirate in due course). The film topped the box office charts for that year, was nominated for seven Academy Awards – and lo, a term that made the OED’s Word of the Year top ten shortlist 75 years later was born. 

Even before the auditorium lights have gone down, Bill Kenwright’s brand-new production of this classic theatre noir cryptogram is designed to subtly unsettle. William Dudley’s clever set – a quintessential Victorian parlour, furnished with straight-backed chairs that could never be comfortable, a chaise longue designed for flinging oneself on in a fit of either angst or adultery, and a fire that you just know would never take the chill out of the room – is subtly off-balance, the perspective skewed just enough to make the audience question our orientation.

The opening conversation between Jack and Bella quickly reveals an equally disconcerting onstage dynamic too – she’s doing her best to please her husband; he’s doing his best to suppress her attempts at optimism. Or is he? Maybe Bella really is going mad, just like her mother did. Maybe Jack is bewildered and beleaguered by his increasingly deranged wife, who denies taking his favourite painting from the wall and hiding important paperwork from him… or does she?  

By the time a calm, charismatic stranger bearing Irish whiskey and an air of reassurance knocks on the door, we’re all desperate for some kind of intervention to break the cycle of despair in the Manningham household – and Rough (Martin Shaw) appears to be the man for the job.

Charlotte Emmerson is utterly compelling as Bella, flitting wildly between capricious efforts to be heard, helped and understood and baleful attempts at surrender to her pernicious, husband’s volatile whims. And as that husband, James Wilby does pernicious malevolence to a tee – to give the vile Victorian a contemporary spin, he could be Patrick (American Psycho) Bateman’s great uncle, or Tom (The Girl on the Train) Watson’s dad.

Enter a very, very cool Martin Shaw as the cordial, super-sharp detective Rough who not only knows why the gaslight in the parlour fades at certain times during the evening, or whose footsteps Bella thinks she can hear walking around the attic, or where all the things that Bella has ‘misplaced’ have been hidden; Rough also knows exactly why Jack is attempting to drive Bella mad.

Secrets and lies; vice and virtue; skewed morals; malevolent attempts at manipulation; hateful hypocrisy – a drama that was the very first artistic portrayal of psychological domestic abuse remains to be one of the most astute, penetrating analyses of an abusive relationship today, turning the spotlight on the big issues, the almost imperceptible vital details… and British theatre at its very, very best.

Main image: Charlotte Emmerson as Bella Manningham and Martin Shaw as Detective Rough in Gaslight. Credit: Paul Coltas