To compare anyone with Audrey Hepburn is theatrical heresy. But this week at the Devonshire Park Theatre, the Original Theatre Company re-creates her iconic 1967 Wait Until Dark with a truly accomplished new production.
Not only Hepburn on celluloid, but the likes of Honor Blackman and Lee Remick on stage, have earned Wait Until Dark a reputation as one of the scariest plays of all time. Book your seat for this show, and prepare to be scared.
At the very centre of the play, in every sense, is a portrayal as compelling as anything you will see on stage this year, or any year. Karina Jones has been blind since the age of thirteen, and so she brings to the central character Susy an authenticity and integrity which no sighted actor could match.
I hesitate to call it disability – simply a different set of skills. This, remarkably, is the first time professionally that a blind actor has taken the Wait Until Dark lead – and yet it is perfectly logical. Karina has the part and the play literally at her fingertips, and as audience we are gripped and fearing for her – needlessly in health-and-safety terms, but emotionally for her character Susy. She is alert, sensitive, frightened, vulnerable; and yet she triumphs.
It has been a challenge, of course. Peek into early rehearsals of the average theatre production: doors and furniture are chalked on the floor, and half of the props have not yet been fished out of store. Not this show. “We needed the set built ahead of time,” explained director Alastair Whatley, speaking after press night. “We had every single prop in place and we plotted every move to the inch. It was a fantastic discipline, not just for Karina but for all of us.”
Not a word of this is patronising, I promise. Karina Jones produces here a tour de force of which any performer would be proud. And surrounding her is a gifted company of actors, who weave their way skilfully through an absorbing night of theatre. I can seldom recall a Devonshire Park auditorium holding its collective breath so tensely, so fixedly.
The trio of criminals are an enjoyable mix of the sinister and the hapless, getting away with silly accents and funny disguises but still frighteningly ruthless. Jack Ellis is assured and plausible as Suzy’s new-found, but false, ally. Tim Treloar is a repulsive Roat, and Graeme Brookes’ Croker is a study in amoral manipulation.
Desperate to retrieve their stolen goods from Susy’s London flat, they spin an elaborate and pretty far-fetched con. An early reviewer of the original New York stage play called the plot “more full of holes than a kitchen colander”. Well, I might liken it to a leaky inflatable in the kids’ pool: paddle furiously enough and you keep it afloat.
Onside with Susy are her lovely husband Sam (Oliver Mellor) and young neighbour Gloria – gloriously played by Shannon Rewcroft with a sense of spiffing schoolgirl adventure.
Whatley’s production values are immaculate. Designer David Woodhead has created a superb set, including a long, very high staircase that symbolically separates Susy’s basement flat from the safe normality of the world outside. Chris Withers lights it – and sometimes blacks it out – perfectly, and the denouement is truly terrifying.
But ultimately this is about the acting, and the astonishing Karina Jones. After Saturday, the production heads out on a long UK tour. But don’t wait until dark. See it this week at the Devonshire Park, and the image of Susy, terrified but unbroken, will stay seared on your memory. By Kevin Anderson.