“I gave you the most horrible evening of your life.” So says Kenneth Cranham’s detective in the coda of “Gaslight.” “Oh no,” breathes relieved heroine Bella (Rosamund Pike), “the most wonderful.” In fact, the Old Vic’s nicely controlled revival of Patrick Hamilton’s thriller is at neither extreme. As careful and measured as the stitching in Bella’s embroidery hoop — though, fittingly, less brightly colored — Peter Gill’s period production delivers the requisite tension and spiritedly serves the text. What it cannot do is convince audience they are witnessing anything more than polished, old-fashioned entertainment.
Casting Cranham as the detective is a cunning ploy. He created the role of the interrupting, interrogating detective in Stephen Daldry’s awards-laden reworking of “An Inspector Calls.” But anyone assuming his presence presages a similarly revolutionary take on dated material would be disappointed.
This is not Gill’s fault. Its creaky construction makes Hamilton’s tale of marital abuse and offstage murder — also known in the U.S. as “Angel Street,” and recently revived Off Broadway at Irish Rep — resist reinterpretation.
Unlike the two movie versions, the play swiftly jettisons doubt as to the guilty party. Instead of charting the initially mystifying, slow decline of a wife, the play makes the dynamics between the couple immediately apparent.
Even before the (ex) inspector calls, auds are in no doubt that husband Jack (Andrew Woodall) is a rotter with malicious intentions. And barely more than 20 minutes into the action, Cranham’s redoubtable Detective Rough arrives to reveal the truth to cowed Bella.
The play is therefore less of a psychological study of marital terrorizing than a standard-issue suspense thriller. Will Bella and her saviour sort everything out before the imminent return of the husband from hell?
Faced with yards of exposition, Cranham works wonders. Alternately gruff and twinkly, he builds tension into the lengthy backstory by chirpily spinning out business with a whiskey bottle, ostensibly to calm the helpless heroine’s fractured nerves. Yet he also craftily builds tension into the seemingly benign character by casting not exactly avuncular looks at her.
Woodall winningly goes for broke. Unlike most actors whose default position is wanting to be loved — or, at the very least, liked — by auds, Woodall bracingly refuses to soften Jack’s heart of darkness. Instead of indulgently showing hints of selflessness, he finds a rare and gripping range of nastiness.
Viciously punching out the consonants as he forces Bella to bend to his will adds to his compelling aura of power. At the same time, that supremely assertive manner, complete with throwaway sneers, makes him convincingly attractive to up-for-it housemaid Nancy. This is the role that famously won 18-year-old Angela Lansbury her first Oscar nom in her screen debut. Sally Tatum misses Lansbury’s sullen impudence, but she uses resentment to fire up a strong sense of ruthlessness.
The success of the evening rests on the beautifully dressed shoulders of the embattled heroine. Pike steps up to the plate in her climactic moment of triumphant release, when she finally gives vent to her previously repressed feelings. But for most of the evening she is watchable but oddly unengaging.
Not for nothing did Pike make her West End debut in the title role of “Hitchcock Blonde.” Like Kim Novak, Pike’s face is imperious. She has a long-boned, still beauty but although her eyes dart in worry and widen in terror, her features retain a chilly imperviousness to emotion that flattens her performance. Her hands fluttering in fear, she moves like a bird trapped in a cage, but her performance is so considered it’s rarely upsetting.
In “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Miss Prism observes of her lost novel, “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” With an additional dollop of tension, that’s precisely what “Gaslight” offers. Thanks to Cranham, Woodall and Gill, auds in search of old-fashioned thrills will get what they paid for. It’s a safe project for Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic. But hardly an exciting one.