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Tweaked ‘Gaslight’ at Shaw Festival is skilled and suspenseful

Tweaked ‘Gaslight’ at Shaw Festival is skilled and suspenseful

Tweaked ‘Gaslight’ at Shaw Festival is skilled and suspenseful

Gaslight

By Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson, based on the play “Angel Street” by Patrick Hamilton. Directed by Kelli Fox. Until Oct. 28, 2022 at the Royal George Theater, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake. Shawfest.com and 800-511-7429.

It’s where we got the term.

The concept of “gaslighting” — psychologically manipulating another person to the point that they question their own sanity — is everywhere in today’s culture and recently figured prominently in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial.

Patrick Hamilton established the concept in his 1938 mystery play, in which a young wife initially believes that the dimming of the gas lights in her London home and eerie knocking sounds in the attic are in her imagination, not signs of something more sinister.

The play’s been multiply adapted for stage and screen, most famously in the 1944 George Cukor film starring Ingrid Bergman. This latest version by Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson, having its world premiere at the Shaw Festival, is very much of the post-#MeToo era, placing female resilience and solidarity center stage. Their clever writing and Kelli Fox’s expert production accomplish the complicated task of serving up the expected, enjoyable tropes of the mystery genre — suspense, plot twists, interpersonal intrigue — while giving the material a satisfying contemporary spin.

The success of Fox’s staging is rooted in nuanced performances by the four-person cast. Julie Lumsden is compelling as Bella, whose devotion to her slightly older husband Jack (André Morin) limits her capacity to perceive how he cuts her off in conversation and questions many of her perceptions. In Morin’s subtle performance, Jack is a silkily convincing mansplainer, whose caring demeanour makes everything he says seem oh-so-rational.

An early bit of business in which Kate Hennig as the sturdy housekeeper Elizabeth buffs out a smudge on a sugar bowl hints at her capacity to see beyond shiny surfaces. And — in another well-observed character detail — Julia Course’s crafty maid Nancy dusts the air behind herself as she snoops around the master’s desk.

Judith Bowden’s set and Kimberley Purtell’s lighting also contain intriguing layers. The walls of the central sitting room seem solid at first, but reveal bodies lurking behind them to overhear conversations and gather evidence.

Toronto theatergoers may recall a 2016 touring production of Hamilton’s original play featuring “Game of Thrones” stars Owen Teale as Jack and Ian McElhinney as Inspector Rough, who turns up a third of the way through the play to guide hapless Bella toward an understanding of her own situation. The most obvious innovation of this new version is that the inspector never calls: Wright and Jamieson have cut the character of Rough and made the central action of the play Bella’s journey towards empowerment and enlightenment, aided by Elizabeth. The innovation also comes through in the elegance of the writing, which becomes a constant, subtle cut-and-thrust rather than Hamilton’s pattern of question and response, which feels heavy-handed in the contemporary context.

It’s striking how quickly the action kicks off: within a few minutes we’re deep in the intrigue of objects going missing around the house, revealing — as Jack would have it — Bella’s unstable mental state. That said, the structure of the first act as a series of relatively short scenes punctuated by blackouts for set and costume changes takes some getting used to. The pace speeds up pleasingly in the second act, as Bella shifts the power dynamic in her direction.

Fox and the performers masterfully keep the melodrama at bay until the unabashedly theatrical climax, and on the night I attended the audience responded in kind, clapping and cheering like they were suddenly at a Christmas panto.

Bring a smart friend to this show to share the fun afterwards of combing through what happened, picking up cues and evidence in retrospect. It’s a very satisfying piece of theatrical reinvention by Wright, Jamieson (a longtime Shaw performer making her playwriting debut), and their classy creative and production team.

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