Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


The Grange Players

The Grange Playhouse, Walsall


As plays go this is a bit of an imposter. To all intents and purposes it is a Victorian melodrama, a psychological thriller set among the pea soupers of 1880’s London.

Yet writer Patrick Hamilton was not even born until 1904, three years after Victoria’s death, and his celebrated play first appeared in 1938 as the world careered towards war.

Not that that matters; it is a play with a clever plot and one which even gave the world a new term for psychological abuse – gaslighting - but we don't want to give too much away, after all, a thriller depends upon shock, surprise, fear – or at the very least a feeling of uncertainty and Grange give you that in splendid fashion.

The play is set in the sitting room of the upper middle class home of Jack Manningham and his wife Bella, Now it is not really a spoiler to tell you that Jack is an domineering, controlling, nasty, cruel, cold and calculating excuse of a husband - the sort of bloke even a pacifist would feel justified in punching in the face on sight.

It is a wonderful performance from Edward Hockin with his sneering, up-market - and consistent - accent, pedantic and petty accusations and flashes of real anger – you pretty well hate him from the moment he speaks. Hockin cleverly shows the various emotions at play in the ever-changing, dark moods of Jack, who seems to go out, with no explanation, each evening.

His performance is matched by the rest of the small cast led by Christina Peak as Bella, a subservient, dependent wife who is, for a short while, delighted at what appears to be a rare act of kindness by her husband, but that only lasts a moment until it is cruelly snatched away. She lives in a constant state of anxiety, trying but always unable to please Jack, forgetful, memory playing tricks, emotions overflowing and tottering on the brink of madness.

Helping to unhinge her fragile mind are the strange sounds from above her bedroom as if someone is walking around in the locked and supposedly empty top floor of their home. Then there is the dimming of the gas lights, as if someone has turned on more lamps in the house . . . but no one has. Is it ghosts or just tricks of her troubled mind?

Servants Elizabeth and Nancy suffer the arrogant moods of Jack, whose mantra is that servants are there merely to serve, the only consideration being the £27-10-0d (ask grandad!) he pays them each year.

gas poster

Lynne Young’s Elizabeth obviously sides with her mistress, while Kate Lowe’s Nancy is openly contemptuous of Bella. More flighty then Virgin Atlantic, Nancy is all about the main chance and in Jack she can see a way of advancement, of benefit to herself, in exchange for, should we say, a more horizontal form of service.

Discretion is definitely not her middle name, which is a useful failing for retired detective Inspector Rough who has one of those cases, an unsolved murder, that has preyed on his mind for 20 years, even through a decade of retirement. And seeing Jack, purely by chance five weeks ago, has reopened the case in his mind.

He arrives unexpectedly and could be Bella’s saviour . . . perhaps, or maybe he could just be a fanciful creation, an escape, a reason for all her misery, a figment conjured up by her damaged mind.

It is a nicely balanced performance by Robert Onions, mild and inoffensive, almost apologetic, and determined to be sure of his facts before he fully explains his purpose, so much so that despite his obvious friendly concern he comes over as secretive, almost evasive, which hardly puts Bella’s turbulent mind at rest.

Rough has some lovely, understated throwaway lines  – such as Scotch being a mix of ambrosia and meths – which helps to lighten what would otherwise be in danger of becoming a heavy night’s work; he brings a normality, a contrast with the tortured relationship of Jack and Bella.

Tension slowly builds as bit by bit Rough puts flesh on the bones of his theory all leading up to dramatic climax, a climax which is a bit wordy in Rough’s case, but, short, sweet and deliciously served revenge from Bella.

The play depends on that tension and director Louise Farmer paces it well, drip feeding Bella’s fear to keep the audience guessing as long as the plot allows. She has also designed an excellent set, a middle class Victorian home with a good lighting plot from Stan Vigurs with realistic gas lights and even the yellow light of a smoggy afternoon through the window.

If you have seen the play before then this is an excellent production worth seeing again. If not, then it is a slow burning thriller that will carry you along, emotions rising and falling with the gas lights. To 23-03-19

Roger Clarke


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