Wait Until Dark
As the lights dimmed in the theatre last night, the audience felt a collective shiver -- and then a deep shudder of fear when the action on stage plunged the entire auditorium into complete impenetrable blackness.
Wait Until Dark, the nail-biting cliffhanger written in 1966 by the master of cunning plots, Frederick Knott, is designed to disturb -- and nowhere is better suited to do it than the tense atmosphere of a theatre. The performance at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last night kept the audience guessing to the end.
With brilliant acting and professional direction, this polished play had an almost surreal element. An announcer asked that all mobiles be completely switched off. In this play full darkness is required for the simple reason that the central character, Susy Henderson, a woman who through no fault of her own, finds herself the prey of murderous con-men, is not only at home alone when they call looking for stashed drugs in a deal gone wrong, but blind and seemingly -- helpless.
And for the first time in the play’s long life, the victim of the scam is played by an actress who lost her own sight at the age of thirteen. Karina Jones’ agile performance as Susy is little short of brilliant.
A threatening tale told in the dead of night is probably mankind’s earliest entertainment and a writer like Knott knew better than most how to twist the tension to terror level. With his famous Dial M for Murder – done brilliantly last year at the Arts – Knott demonstrated his knack of gripping an audience in helpless suspense. Wait until Dark is a later play and uses the same canny techniques. The audience were on the edge of their seats, confusion and excitement and horror running high.
When it was finally staged after seven rejections, Dial M for Murder stormed the box offices and became a high-grossing Hitchcock film starring the darling of her day, Grace Kelly. It made Knott a fortune. Wait Until Dark 20 years on was also filmed -- with a screenplay by its author -- and had the ultra stylish Audrey Hepburn as the trapped vulnerable heroine, fighting for her life against the odds.
Wait Until Dark is a profound play. For while Dial M for Murder is more complex and cunningly plotted, this cliff-hanger relies on the resourcefulness and intelligence of a disabled woman who battles to overcome the powers of darkness in every sense of the word.
Here is a performer whose courage in the face of what, by any reckoning, must count as a devastating set back, led her to a career in circus arts: unbelievably she became expert in tight rope walking. 'I asked them not to tell me how high I was,' she reports, ’but I knew it was high as it took so long to winch me up.' Karina’s training as an’ aerialist’ gave her the confidence she craved to perform as an actor.
In Wait until Dark, she brings a special understanding to a darkened world of terrifying menace – for the twist of the plot relies on the absence of light for everyone. Susy, with her astute hearing, turns the tables on her tormentors. When she skillfully organizes a black-out in the flat where they have her imprisoned, they are suddenly equals. But not for long – the drama is long and tense.
Villains seldom come more sadistic than mastermind Roat, played with scorching realism by Tim Treloar. He has discovered a couple of ex-cons and soon manipulates them into his scheme, Mike, skillfully realized by Jack Ellis, and the simple bullish Croker played with convincing brutality by Graeme Brookes.
Susy using her intuition, bravely faces down Mike, confident he will not ‘do anything too terrible to her’ but Roat poses a different level of danger altogether. He is clearly a psychopath in a cruel league of his own -- no wonder Quentin Tarantino was the latest director to direct this savagely sadistic character in a recent adaptation. Impervious to this young woman’s vulnerability, Roak is a man without mercy. Last night’s audience was hung with tension in the final scenes where this murderer, armed and powerful is pitted against the wits of a blind young woman.
With its casting of a blind woman to play the central blind character it also breaks through barriers. All the cast are brilliant actors, but Karina Jones deserves her next role to be a sighted woman. Now that would be a real breakthrough and one she richly deserves.