Review: Gaslight is clever, cheeky and (sometimes) creepy

Updated for a modern audience, the play is both a conversation-starter and tantalizing stage thriller, reviews Julie Chadwick.
Actors Nyiri Karakas and Ben Sanders performing in Chemainus Theatre Festival’s Gaslight. Ben is tied to a chair, eyes closed in panic. Nyiri is hunched over standing in front of him, clutching a pair of scissors.
Nyiri Karakas and Ben Sanders star in Chemainus Theatre Festival’s Gaslight. Photo by Barry Brady.

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“I hate this guy,” I whispered to my sister Jane, as we sat in a darkened theatre on Friday night watching Chemainus Theatre’s production of Gaslight.

“Me too,” she whispered back, with a chuckle. “That’s how you know he’s a good actor.”

The guy in question was actor Ben Sanders in the lead role of Jack Manningham, whose repugnant manipulations and deception towards his wife Bella form the core tension of the play. With swaggering confidence and feigned concern, he convinces Bella she’s slowly going insane (just like her mother, he reminds her), undermining her perceptions about the house’s gas lighting dimming, dismissing the banging and dragging noises she hears as hallucinations, and hiding items while leading her to believe she did it.

Written by Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson, the play is an updated adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, which itself has seen a number of incarnations — from a Broadway production called Angel Street that ran through the 1940s, to the 1944 film Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman, who won a best actress Oscar for her starring role as Bella.

The term “gaslighting” has gained traction over recent years as a way to describe “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage,” according to Merriam-Webster, who selected it as their word of the year in 2022.

This modern relevance keeps the play’s message fresh and dynamic, and though Wright and Jamieson’s version remains set in the 1880s, they’ve updated and tweaked the story to shift Bella’s plight of powerlessness —  a frustrating but realistic outcome of being misled by one’s husband in a time when women still had very little agency — to offer a potential way out through her own cunning and independence.

Prior to the show, my sister and I sat down to a three-course meal at the venue, complete with salads, entrees and a full dessert bar (Jane pointed to the chocolate fountain as we walked in, noting that if she had brought her kids they’d “have their whole heads in there”). Delighting in the rare time alone, away from children, we chatted about the concept and experience of gaslighting.

“I mean what do we even have but the perceptions around us to keep us anchored to reality?” I wondered, noting how tragic it was to be deceived by those closest to us, especially when we believe they have our best interests at heart.

During intermission, the conversation continued, with Jane noting that the way Bella’s character was misled by her husband reminded her of pop singer Amy Winehouse’s plight and how according to some accounts, she was exploited by both her father and husband before ultimately succumbing to alcohol poisoning in 2011. 

“She would be passed out drunk and they’d just pick her up and put her on a plane and she’d arrive in some other country and they’d just shove her onstage,” Jane said. “She thought they loved her and were looking out for her.”

Though at times the plot of Gaslight delves from mysterious to humorous to silly, some standout features of the show include beautiful set design, ornate costumes and subtle, nuanced acting from Nyiri Karakas (Bella), Ben Sanders (Jack), Erin Ormond (Elizabeth) and Janaya Barker (Nancy). 

Admittedly, I love almost all live theatre, but for a show that clocked in at just over two hours it was entertaining and fast-paced, with cliffhangers, an atmosphere that was at times genuinely creepy and a well-orchestrated fight scene the likes of which I’ve never seen live on stage.

Gaslight plays at Chemainus Theatre Festival until May 28.

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