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Review: Tension in Chemainus Theatre’s superb ‘Gaslight’ will have you on the edge of your seat

Do the gas lights really dim, and thumping noises sound from the attic or is it all in Bella’s head?
Nyiri Karakas as Bella and Ben Sanders as Jack in a new adaptation of the classic play ‘Gaslight’ at the Chemainus Theatre until May 28. (Photo by Koh Lauren Quan)

Do you love a good psychological thriller? If you do, Gaslight at the Chemainus Theatre is the show for you.

This is a new adaptation by Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson of a classic, based on the play Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton, and it’s easy to see why this tale has endured as a stage and film favourite.

The story begins in a grand home in London that the audience quickly learns has a mysterious past. Its current inhabitants are a young couple, a stalwart housekeeper and a coquetish new maid. Nyiri Karakas is Bella, the young wife of Jack, played by Ben Sanders. Erin Ormond plays the housekeeper Elizabeth, who has been taking care of the home for many years, and Janaya Barker is Nancy, who is evidently Trouble with a capital “T” from the moment of her arrival.

All of the action takes place on a single set, adding to the claustrophic atmosphere created as we learn that there appears to be something wrong with Bella, who lives as a virtual shut-in. But is her husband the doting and patient man he appears to be? Is Elizabeth only the devoted servant or did she play a larger role than she lets on in what happened to the home’s previous owner? And what exactly is Nancy after? Just a purloined glass of sherry and a fling with Jack? Or is her purpose more nefarious?

And do the gas lights really dim at night, and thumping noises sound from the attic or is it all in Bella’s head?

The actors do an excellent job of building tension as the plot progresses through the first act. As Bella’s confusion grows so too does her fear, leaving the audience to wonder if we are seeing a woman descend into a dark madness. Sanders, Ormond and Barker are masterful at conveying just enough discordant notes to make us doubt the straightforward answer, even as Bella doubts her sanity.

The first act ends with a cliffhanger after a doozy of a revelation that shifts everything from that point forward. (No, I’m not going to let the cat out of the bag. This review will be deliberately vague about plot details so as not to spoil the experience for audiences. But suffice it to say that “gaslight” is definitely a double entendre here.)

The second act begins a fascinating cat and mouse game with a shifting balance of power in the characters’ relationships ratcheting the tension up even further. This is where Karakas and Sanders really shine, as Bella and Jack say one thing and mean another entirely throughout the second half.

Because while Gaslight is technically a murder mystery, its real strength is as a study of these characters and their relationships with one another. So much is conveyed with just a look exchanged and the cast is more than up to the challenge under the able direction of Sarah Rodgers. The genuine air of menace that permeated the show (the hairs stood up on the back of my neck at several points) is masterfully done. A tale of manipulation and madness at its best.

Gaslight is also visually stunning. Set designer Hans Saefkow has really outdone himself with this effort, as has costume designer Crystal Hanson. The entire look is sumptuous and transports the audience back to another time and place. Sound designer Rick Colhoun also deserves a shoutout for his work in helping to create the whole creepy mood.

The show runs until May 28 and is well worth the price of admission.

Andrea Rondeau

About the Author: Andrea Rondeau

I returned to B.C. and found myself at the Cowichan Valley Citizen.
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