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Angel Street at the Masquers

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By Theresa de Valence - Posted on 31 January 2008

Who would’ve thunk it? A genuine thriller full of nail biting suspense on our very doorstep. Angel Street, a Victorian thriller written by Patrick Hamilton, was performed first as Gaslight in 1938 in Richmond (London), England; in 1942 by Vincent Price on Broadway; and, on its 70th anniversary, by the Masquers in Point Richmond, California, which is directed by Patricia Inabnet.

This is a play for breaking rules.

Before writing a review, I generally avoid reading about the work because I don’t want my view tainted. In this case the Director’s Notes in the programme prepared my mind for the story which takes place in London, England, in the 1880s: corsets, gaslight, and a time when women were considered their husband’s property. It’s hard to believe the human race could have survived in this unequal framework, but I do understand boys’ clubhouse games which exclude girls and are filled with silly rules which the girls ignore. Until the boys turn those rules into laws and women mayn’t vote.

What must be true is that the social fabric in times past had nothing to do with law; what made people behave well was something handed down from parents to children, guidelines for decency and proper behaviour.

But what, one wonders, would happen if one met an unscrupulous person, someone who didn’t want to follow those social rules? Worse yet, what if one were married to him?

Welcome to a new world. In the days where wives could disappear or get locked away....

If the character who changes most in the play is the star then Jack Manningham (David Shirk, photo, right) is not only the leading man, but he is brilliant. He is a well dressed gentleman and almost impossibly handsome, his silver streaks so perfect I thought they were an artifice of costuming. Early in the play he seems attentive and devoted—though a bit bossy, perhaps normal for the cultural era. He’s charming and makes us laugh with his ideas about what could have been his profession. Then we see him change. First he makes a fuss about his belongings, which is childish, but minor. He takes issue with the way the house is run—which, were he a good man, wouldn’t matter—but with Jack we begin to see his desire to dominate the women around him; he takes extraordinary pleasure in drawing complicity from the servants. Slowly we begin to doubt this handsome man, perhaps he looks to good to be true? (Photo by Jerry Telfer)

Meanwhile Bella Manningham (Michelle Pond, photo, left) has fit herself into this world, a young lady who sees herself as a reflection of her husband, who expects him to be right. Normally I dislike weak and whiney women but Michelle was different. Firstly, I know her a little. Secondly, Bella is unlike any Michelle I have yet seen—even her face is different, the shape of her nose and eyes unfamiliar—which is extraordinary if you consider that I have seen her in four or five plays in recent years.
Most important is Michelle’s powerful portrayal of Bella, a woman expecting to be subservient to her husband’s will. Bella is a sensitive young woman, once attractive and desirable, now nervous and flighty, on the verge of tears for the entire play. We see the effects of relentless distrust; she digresses into neurosis in front of our eyes. Bella is no longer certain about anything—even her own sanity.

Into this maelstrom strides Rough (Norman Macleod, O.B.E., Esq.) a retired police detective with a long memory and time on his hands.

Bella is anxious but Rough will not be hurried; he relieves her stress with an elaborate resumé of an old case. Norman is a perfect Rough—a waffling, gently persistent, slightly tipsy, gentlemanly British fellow. The Sergeant succeeds in making Bella calmer—taking her out of herself—making her willing to listen. But the audience? Rough’s antics make the audience loosen up in roars of laughter, perhaps a reaction to the tension, but he’s fabulous!

Elizabeth (Jean Rose) is a hard working, obedient servant—one can feel the drudgery of her life. She has a warm relationship with the mistress and seems like an old familiar. Elizabeth has two stellar spots of insubordination, both key to the plot, all the more convincing from such a downtrodden maid.

Nancy (Heather Morrison), another servant, adds pepper to the story—an impudent girl, just racing to get reckless—a rôle which Heather seems to be perfecting. She is my vote for Actress Most Enjoying Herself. In recent plays, Heather has been inching towards greater abandon. With Nancy, she is the most salacious yet and is evidently having a great time. She’s a treatl!

With the exception of the policeman (Heinz Lankford) who comes in at the end of the play to wrestle with the bad guy and show off great knot tying techniques, the actors are all on stage early.

Director Patricia Inabnet turns a three act play into a two act play, an improvement on the script. There were the usual mishaps: gaslights dimming at the wrong time, gaslights too bright behind Rough’s head so I couldn’t see his face, and my pet peeve, people playing British accents they don’t own, but these trifles don’t detract overmuch.

Later, as Jack Manningham evolves, his civilized shell breaks. When he became enraged, I was afraid for myself, cringing the way one does in a crowded place watching a frightened child being berated by its parent not two feet away.

I was terrified. True, I was in the front row and Jack was fully ten or twenty feet away—nothing he could do would hurt me—but I didn’t feel safe; I can still hear his booming voice yelling at me (Bella) to “Come here!” and I can still see his hands around her throat. I can see him mashing her face with those diabolical fingers as Bella and I cower and whimper.

It was horrific.

As the curtain fell, the audience tried to perform a standing ovation—difficult when the cast had piled out into the lobby—but we tried to express how truly stupendous was this performance.

You gotta see it.