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theatre review

A scene from Gaslight.Cylla von Tiedemann

Gaslight, a 1938 "Victorian thriller" by the British novelist Patrick Hamilton, gave a name to something that previously had no name. Its brilliant opening scene paints such a recognizable, if heightened, picture of a commonplace form of mental abuse that the play's titular noun was turned into a verb to describe it.

In a gloomy sitting room in 1880s London, Bella Manningham (Flora Montgomery) is walking around on eggshells as Mr. Manningham (Owen Teale) naps under the evening paper. She's only organizing muffins for teatime with the maid – but is clearly terrified.

After her husband does awake, Mr. Manningham chastises Bella for fearing chastisement – and it's clear he's a bad sort even before he then flirts with the young maid in front of her (ostensibly to teach his wife not to treat the servants as equals). Next, he dangles tickets to the theatre in front of Bella – only to yank them away once he discovers that a picture has been taken down from the wall.

Bella professes to have had nothing to do with this redecorating – but her husband says, in a tone more in sorrow than in anger, that if she doesn't start confessing to hiding objects around the house, he will have to have her committed.

Witnessing Bella's psychological anxiety – making someone doubt their memory or sanity has since become known as "gaslighting" – is almost equally as nerve-wracking for an audience.

While Hamilton described his hit play – later made into a number of movies – as a pastiche, the way his opening scene skirts melodrama is what makes it so great.

In director David Gilmore's production currently at the Ed Mirvish, Teale presents a Mr. Manningham who is not entirely evil, while Montgomery's Bella does seem a little overly frantic. There's enough doubt to be tantalizing.

Very little that follows Gaslight's opening scene, however, could be called brilliant – and that's not only because the plot hinges on the way the gas lights in the Manningham household dim at unexpected moments.

Hamilton's searing portrait of domestic abuse is only an introduction for a thriller that isn't particularly thrilling, a mystery that is not really that mysterious.

Disappointingly, the question of whether Bella is going mad or not is dismissed rather quickly as a detective named Rough (a jaunty Ian McElhinney) shows up to assure her that she is not.

Instead, Rough spins a tale about her husband that involves a murder long ago and missing jewels. Rough's entrance marks the beginning of a stretch of drawing-room exposition that it's hard to believe wouldn't have seemed comically extended even to audiences in 1938. I think it's a fault of the playwright more than McElhinney that the actor jumped over a good chunk of dialogue on opening night.

The Northern Irish thespian – known of late for playing a character named Barristan the Bold on HBO's Game of Thrones – stopped, apologized and then jumped back. But when Inspector Rough arrived at the line he had prematurely leapt to – a cliché about murderers always returning to the scene of the crime – what was notable was how little of what he had said in the interim mattered. Rough treats Bella as if she were extremely dim, and the play treats the audience in roughly the same manner.

The intriguing plot defect at the centre of Gaslight is that Bella never really develops a skepticism of men who feed her stories. She simply stops believing everything her husband has told her – and starts believing everything that Insp. Rough tells her, with little proof.

To a certain extent, the audience undergoes a similar journey – emphasizing how theatre is a form of gaslighting, an enjoyable, safe one where you consent to being tricked into believing that actors on stage in 2016 Toronto are actually in a drawing room in 1880s London.

It would be interesting to see an adventurous deconstruction of Gaslight – one that exploits the paradox in its construction. This is not that production, but an endearingly old-fashioned take – one for which the Ed Mirvish Theatre's old curtain has been pulled out of storage. (For a select few, seeing this gorgeous velvet curtain with gold tassels at the bottom rise and fall will be worth the price of admission; I swooned.)

David Mirvish has teamed up with British producer Paul Elliott – who used to import pantomime to Toronto and recently brought last year's The Last Confession to town – to create this production in Toronto.

It's being sold on its two male stars and the fact that they have both been on Game of Thrones – a fact that further pushes Bella into the background.

Teale – who I know from the excellent Netflix series River – and his nuanced portrait of a pseudo-Victorian villain is the main reason to recommend this production. McElhinney lives up to his character's description as " brusque, friendly, overbearing," but the complete lack of tension he brings to the stage does threaten to tip the proceedings over into camp.

As for Montgomery, she gives a vivid portrayal of Bella all the way through – until the end, when she doesn't quite convincingly take the play's final step. Victoria Lennox, as an older maid named Elizabeth, is uncommonly good in a small role.

Gaslight continues to Feb. 28. Tickets and times at mirvish.com.

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