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Review: GASLIGHT at Shaw Festival

A Modern Day Victorian Thriller

Review: GASLIGHT at Shaw Festival
Andre Morin and Julie Lumsden in GASLIGHT

A Victorian thriller melded with a dash of 21st century female fortitude makes up the fabric of the Shaw Festival's gripping new production of GASLIGHT. Over the years the Festival has mastered presenting these chilling stories in it's quaint jewel box Royal George Theatre. Memories of REBECCA and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE always pervade my memories in that theatre. Even at first glance, the dimly lit set primes the audience for an afternoon of intrigue and escapism to another era.

Best known as a 1944 Hollywood film starring Ingrid Bergman and a 18 year old Angela Lansbury, GASLIGHT got it's start as a stage play by Patrick Hamilton with various other titles including "Angel Street" and "Five Chelsea Lane." Toronto audiences will remember a stylish 2016 production given at The Ed Mirvish Theatre.

Shaw has employed two talented authors, Patty Jamieson and Johnna Wright, to pen their own version and it is receiving it's World Premiere at the Festival. In doing so they have fine tuned the cast to four characters. At first glance it appears that Bella and Jack are living quite well in a rented home in 1901 London. But Bella is forever nervous and on edge, following in the footsteps of her mother who suffered mental illness and was institutionalized. Jack gives all indications that he is the doting husband who only wants the best for his poor suffering, delusional wife. But when the gaslights begin to dim and strange sounds are heard overheard from rooms that have been sealed off, the psychological tensions build. Is Bella losing her mind or is someone in the house driving her mad. The house keeper Elizabeth seems supportive but the new maid Nancy is cheeky and appears suspect.

The original source has an inspector that helps uncover the strange happenings in the home. Our two new authors have masterfully developed a novel twist in which the Bella is no damsel in distress, but rather cunning and uses her inherent wits and the help of Elizabeth to save herself from unraveling. The story actually bends beautifully as the audience is rooting for Bella by the end instead of feeling sorry for her supposed sad plight.

Julie Lumsden is giving a tour de force performance as Bella, Her mellifluous speaking voice and deportment make her the perfect subservient Victorian wife. There is never a doubt that she is grappling with her mental health, but makes it abundantly clear that she is not as unhinged as her husband suggests. Ms. Lumsden conveys a sense of downtrodden despair until she realizes the facts behind her husbands actions. Despite her own mother's hysteria, Bella is now a strong woman with a clear path towards her own salvation.

Kate Hennig is great as Elizabeth, the housekeeper to the home, long before Bella and Jack arrived. Her knowledge of the murder of the home's former owner in an attempt to steel her jewels is key to Bella's eventual triumph. Ms. Hennig's performance resonates as the stern yet efficient servant...always observant but maintaining of her station. When the new young maid Nancy, played by Julia Course, enters the home for no good reason the audience must ask if her presence is a red herring in this sea of mental chaos or if she holds the key to the strange occurrences in the house.

Review: GASLIGHT at Shaw Festival
Andre Morin, Julia Course, and Kate Hennig in GASLIGHT

Andre Morin is the sole male in the cast and he handles of the role of Jack deftly, all the while oozing an inherent unlikability. His strange evening disappearances and condescending tone toward his wife make him deliciously evil. Morin does a fine job in convincing everyone that he only wants the best for his wife, and for a time the audience gets sucked into his game.

Stage Director Kelli Fox leads the strong female creative. She finds the perfect balance of drama and mystery without letting the melodrama seep in (which could so easily happen when a stereotypical woman teeters on the edge of insanity). Set and costume designer Judith Bowden has painted an evocative picture of Victorian life in her detailed sets and lovely outfits for Ms. Lumsden,

As one can imagine, lighting design is quite important is a show called GASLIGHT, and Lighting Designer Kimberly Purtell has a cast a shadowy glow on the set that can only be achieved by gaslighting. Although I did hope for a bit more lighting variation as the lights were supposed to be flickering and dimming. Original music by Gilles Zolty was eerie and effective.

Modern audiences are primed for this great new adaptation as our authors have clearly realized a new path for Bella, while maintaining all of the inherent Gothic creepiness that comes from an overbearing and manipulative husband. Although Bella appears to be first to been tricked by being gaslit, she now emerges as the phoenix of the feminist movement of her future generations.

GASLIGHT plays through October 8, 2022 at the Royal George Theatre of The Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario.

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