Gaslight, Frinton Summer Theatre

Gaslight, by Patrick Hamilton, Frinton Summer Theatre (until Monday 30 July)

Gaslight, by Patrick Hamilton, Frinton Summer Theatre (until Monday 30 July)

In the Victorian parlour the gaslight dims menacingly, trinkets go missing, and footsteps clomp about in the empty floor above. A young wife is driven to the point of madness and murder is in the air.

Frinton Summer Theatre has turned to this apparently melodramatic hokum for its second play of the season and Jonathan Holloway's production grips the attention.

The long underrated writer, Patrick Hamilton, made his pile from this play, first with stage hits from 1938 in London and New York and then two films made during the war - the latter starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.

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It comes from a popular stable sired by the Edwardian detective story, the twenties stage thriller craze and a continuing interwar fashion for stage effects perhaps spurred on by fear of being completely swamped by the cinema.

But there's more to the play than just tricksy thrills. It more than hints at a chilling examination of systematic psychological abuse by a husband of his wife. That's why the credible menace of the former and vulnerability of the latter is so crucial to any production.

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Dean Lepley's malignant portrayal of a man obsessed with finding the jewels of an old woman he murdered long ago is appropriately creepy. My female companion said she was scared he'd come back even when he was offstage. The wife, Bella, is played with a fine pallid edginess by Augustina Seymour. She's presented as woman on the brink of collapse, someone for whom you worry, but with a potential for vitriolic anger.

No wonder the retired policeman, Inspector Rough (Chris Porter) feels the need to put his arms round her. The old copper, who performs a number of functions including light relief, is something of a pastiche of humble but clever coppers from Wilkie Collins's Sergeant Cuff to TV's Sergeant Cluff (both of whose names, incidentally, rhyme with Rough). In panto terms he's Cinderella's Fairy Godmother. We all know who is the baddy.

It matters not a bit that we're couple of steps ahead of it all, we quite enjoy our cleverness. Frinton Summer Theatre has brought us a tightly performed revival with plenty of tension and not a little fun.

Ivan Howlett

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