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Pymble Players: Gaslight - Review by Faith Jessel

Suspenseful, hypnotic, and heartbreakingly beautiful.

Patrick Hamilton's extraordinary, timeless, and mind-bending tale of the depths of human nature has been brought to life with fearless direction and innovative vision by director Joy Sweeney at the Pymble Players Theatre.

We have the choice to enter this story with conflicting mindsets. On one hand, "Gaslight" is a classic Victorian drawing room thriller, asking us to piece together the puzzle: strange noises above, missing picture frames, mysterious dimming lights, and an unsolved murder. On the other, it delves into the harrowing truth of how psychological abuse is performed behind closed doors with noxious intent by those who claim to love us the most. Sweeney adeptly melds both. There is a reason this story still resonates today. The audience can't help but be moved.

It was wonderful to see the Pymble stage completely open in all its glory. The minimalist but highly effective set design and authentic costumes (also by Sweeney) pay homage to the 1944 black and white film. This is enhanced by Wendy Walker's scenic art and dressing, splendidly allowing the talented creatives room to breathe and the audience to contemplate whether we are truly present in the room with the characters.

Bella Manningham's husband, played by Nick Roberts, is a gaslighting virtuoso. It's an unforgiving role because Manningham is so much more than an archetypal villain. The mask of a caring husband, concerned for the welfare of his disturbed and sick wife, is a common one. Manningham wears this cloak of deception to conceal and then wield an insidious and systematic cycle of coercive control. Roberts rises to the challenge and slowly peels back the layers of the malignant narcissist as the evening unfolds, revealing the true character of Manningham.

Amelia Conway is perfectly cast as the dual heroine and survivor, Bella Manningham, a woman on the edge. Conway's delicate beauty and frail but ingrained demeanor perfectly encapsulate this iconic character's vulnerability and entrapment. Her dire situation is also occurring in a time when women have no agency and rely entirely on the mercy of men. Conway delivers a performance of nuance and grace, sometimes challenging to absorb as her pain and confusion are palpable. The audience sits in silent sympathy, helpless witnesses.

Her housekeeper, Elizabeth, played by Kate Kelly, embodies quiet compassion and watchful alertness, knowing this story all too well. She is just as trapped as Bella, a lowly servant in a house full of ghosts. But she's a smart one who has seen and dealt with it all. Elizabeth represents the lifeline that all women in Bella's situation need, and Kelly conveys the innate strength and restrained sadness we often observe in marginalized women.

Not so with the saucy maid, Nancy. Georgia Drewe exudes an earthy sensuality, contrasting the class division and tension with her mistress. Flirtatious and far too cocky and young for her own good, she's also a survivor, but one who has no qualms about stepping over women to serve herself. Nancy knows exactly how to manipulate men, but she plays a dangerous, one-trick game.

Renowned community theatre stalwart Dave Kirkham is always a class act. He is simply marvelous as Inspector Rough, Bella's savior. The audience lets out a collective sigh of relief upon his timely arrival, which is delivered with levity and jovial energy. Rough is a man who has made the study of human fallibility his mission. With a twinkle in his eye and not above using a joke, a nip of whisky, or weaving his own story or two, Rough is a lesson in gaining trust and curating accomplices to get the job done. He has more than enough smarts to untangle Manningham's web of lies and propel Bella through the fog of her abuse towards the truth, making the denouement all the more satisfying.

Light and shadow and their many metaphors are imperative in bringing this iconic story to the stage. Casey Moon-Watton's superbly creative and intuitive lighting and hazer effects unfurl a haunting, hypnotizing, dreamlike atmosphere, obscuring reality and seamlessly integrating Geoff Jones's compelling but subtle soundscape, underscoring the pathos and exposition with an uneasy intensity. This sweeps the audience along with Bella on her tumultuous journey, never feeling safe or certain, and builds towards almost unbearable tension, right up to the closing scene when Bella discovers her thin but unbendable blade of steely power. This moment is a powerful conduit of closure for people, past and present, who may have a similar story.

This slickly directed, executed, and highly entertaining production has refreshingly broken many theatrical boundaries and brought this tight-knit company to the forefront of what great community theatre can offer. "Gaslight" runs until 26th November. Secure your tickets quickly. 4 and-a-half flickering flames out of 5 Photographer:Daniel Ferris.

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