THE word “gaslighting” is everywhere on social media, in this age of #metoo; as every teenager knows, it refers to a specific type of bullying in which the bully tries to convince the victim that she – or he – is going mad, or at least has a poor grasp on reality.
Gaslight, Perth Theatre ****
The Girl on the Train, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***
A Kind of Alaska, Eastgate Theatre, Peebles ****
It’s surprising, though, how few of those who use the term know of its origin, in Patrick Hamilton’s creepy 1938 play, set in late-Victorian London, about a woman called Bella who is bullied to the point of collapse by a husband who wants her to believe that she is mad.
At nights, he goes out, leaving her alone; she suspects, from the sudden dimming of the gaslight soon after he departs, that he is returning home to roam about the locked top floor of the house. It’s only when a third force intervenes, though, in the shape of a retired police inspector called Rough, that she begins to trust her own suspicions, and to glimpse the possibility of escape.
Kai Fischer’s new production for Perth Theatre seizes vividly on the symbolic dimension of the story hinted at in Rough’s name. Played by Meg Fraser in an extraordinary female-adventurer outfit featuring plus fours and an old-fashioned pilot’s helmet with goggles, Rouse arrives in this production like some androgynous messenger from the future; Fraser’s remarkable performance sometimes drifts towards comic self-parody, but still does a sterling job in opening up our expectations of straightforward Victorian Gothic horror.
On a lightly-drawn drawing-room set, with a fore-stage on which Bella sometimes steps out of her story to become its narrator, Esme Bayley delivers a memorable performance as a young woman struggling to break free from her allegiance to an abusive husband (Robin Laing, in fine form).
And there are moments when Rough’s voice, echoing from different parts of the theatre in Matt Padden’s remarkable sound design, seems like a courageous and rebellious part of Bella herself, in a play that reminds us not only of how subtle the processes of psychological abuse can be, but also of how those who would hold power over us seek to disrupt our perception of reality and truth, in life, as in politics.
Paula Hawkins’s 2015 thriller The Girl On The Train – briefly in Edinburgh this week – is a kind of Gaslight for the modern age, featuring a manipulative ex-husband, and a woman on the verge of breakdown.
Our heroine Rachel, played with impressive flair by former Eastenders star Samantha Womack, has taken to drink and lost her job after a messy divorce, although she still travels into London by train every day, so as to catch a glimpse of her former marital home, and also of a neighbouring couple whose life she envies.
One day, though, she glimpses something different from the train, becoming a key witness to a possible murder. And like Bella, she is helped by a sturdy police inspector, whose strong grasp on reality helps her to begin to clear the fog of alcohol, and to acquire a new trust in her own sharp intelligence.
It is an enjoyable whodunnit which boasts an exceptionally interesting central character, even if its theatrical style is often disappointingly static, and plagued by rickety-looking scene-changes.
Harold Pinter’s brief 1982 play A Kind Of Alaska – the last in Rapture Theatre’s current successful series of touring lunchtime shows – is also, in its way, a play about a woman abused.
Its heroine Deborah has just awoken after 29 years in a trance brought on by sleeping sickness; and as she struggles to comprehend her situation, she often seems distraught both at the sheer cruelty of the illness that struck her as a 15-year-old girl, and at memories of a teenage life fraught with sexual confusion and threat.
What emerges is a strange portrait of a life frozen in the middle-class postwar England of the 1950s, with all its secrets and lies, privileges and neuroses; and a series of questions about life, death and reality that Michael Emans’s thoughtful production never quite faces head-on, despite a fine central performance from Gina Isaac, with support from Burt Caesar as the doctor, and an excellent Janet Coulson as Deborah’s suffering sister, Pauline.
Gaslight is at Perth Theatre until 6 April. The Girl On The Train at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, today, Theatre Royal Glasgow, 15-20 April, and His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 3-7 September. A Kind Of Alaska is at Harbour Arts Centre, Irvine, today, and East Kilbride Arts Centre tomorrow.