Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Review Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark
by Frederick Knott

Double Dealing

This 1967 play by the son-of-Quaker missionaries, Frederick Knott may seem like a dated traditional thriller, Yet it is really far more of a psychological helter skelter riff on the horror genre and product of a psychedelic and actorly age.

This seam was mined more fully in 1967, the year  following its stage premiere, in a suspenseful movie version directed by Terence Young, like Knott born in China, when it was a successful vehicle for Audrey Hepburn as the blind heroine in a Greenwich Village basement flat.

This, however, does not necessarily make this play a gripping piece for a 21st century audience.

Set now in London, a young woman is home alone in a basement flat where she is terrorized by a trio of criminals, with one murder already under their belts, searching for a stash of drugs.  

Sight impaired actor Karina Jones is Susy, both quivering victim and resourceful 1960s' hip chick, who gradually realises the utter implausibility of what she is being told by a series of characters impersonated by the wrongdoers.

Yet this seems part of a consciously double layer of implausibility. The plot is triggered by a husband (Oliver Mellor) who naviely agrees to bring a doll from Amsterdam to London for an attractive fellow passenger with a sob story about a sick child.

A naive young fellow you may think? Well, in this case it's a photographer. In the 1960s.  A seasoned traveller who doesn't realize any of the dangers. Hmm. 

Skip over this far fetched initial scenario, just as the farce audience should lose itself in laughter, this melodramatic wind up relies on surprise, excitement and satisfaction as a series of sadism and shocks are lined up for resilient Susy to knock down.

The play was directed first by Arthur "Bonnie and Clyde" Penn on Broadway with Lee Remick, quickly followed by a West End production with Honor Blackman in the starring role.  

Maybe one day some enterprising theatre bod can transform it into a satisfying semi parodic (somewhat in the style of Joe Orton's Loot) stylistic success.

But for the time being it remains, at the very least, both an extremely knotty play and a creaky period piece with longeurs.  It may also need a more heightened radiophonic soundscape to reflect Susy's experience as she grows in awareness. 

Knott, a Cambridge law graduate and ex-army man, is said, famously, to have hated writing. However he still managed to pen two workmanlike plays out of a very small output which were turned into classic movies - Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder starring Grace Kelly and Wait Until Dark

His first success came when a play which failed to find a producer was picked up by the BBC and after its first TV transmission was passed on to Alfred Hitchcock for a movie.

TLT and her cohort in theatrical crime couldn't help feeling that maybe by the time of Wait Until Dark, Knott was pitching at a movie deal from the start. As a play, it's far more suited to radio, a medium in many ways more closely allied to cinema than the stage.

It's not hard to see why Knott's writing was congenial to the styles of Hitchcock and early James Bond director Young. This is a plot which has to work like a clockwork thriller equivalent of farce.

The mechanics have to whirr inexorably round and the shocks slot into place with a satisfying frisson. A vein of humour in the play shows an awareness of its artificiality and artifice.

It seems to TLT and her quick-change-artiste automotive pal that Wait Until Dark can only work if the villains are understood to be both villainous and a cast of actors playing sadistic tricks in 'real' life.

 Actors with a mix of styles ranging from barnstorming melodrama to method acting straight out of The Studio.

Is this possible? Not on the evidence of this uneven producton directed by Alastair Whatley and the most recent productons, it seems. Even the actor Peter Sallis who played the chief villain in the original West End production directed by Anthony Sharp said it was "a difficult play to read and a difficult play in a way to put over".

It remains the original Cold War chiller thriller - a fridge or ice box plays a huge part in a rather confusing denouement. It does seem mightily stretched out over two acts and two hours and 20 minutes. In terms of tension, it's decidedly lukewarm rather than a red hot crucible.

Having said that, there are good performances from Jones and her young poppet of a neighbour, as strapped up as Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, Shannon Rewcroft. Jack Ellis does convey effectively increasing doubt over his role in the drugs' plot and Tim Treloar makes a menacing Roat adding considerable pep in the second act.

This is a touring production, in Richmond until Saturday and then moving to runs in Cheltenham, Cambridge, Salisbury, Exeter, Lichfield, Malvern, Southend, Ipswich, Cardiff, York and Guildford.

As a historical piece in a gallery of theatrical curios, it is interesting. As a piece of drama, it does fall short for today's savvy audience and we can only give a red/amber light. 

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