You can easily see why Quentin Tarantino was attracted to take a stage role in the 1998 Broadway revival of Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott. Like Knott's greatest hit, Dial M For Murder, this is a dark and menacing suspense thriller with a big-time gimmick. In this case, the shtick is that Susy, the target of three potentially murderous con-men, is blind, and uses her other four senses to uncover and thwart their scheme to retrieve a doll which, unknown to Susy, has a consignment of heroin stashed inside it.
Tarantino would also have been attracted by the play's strong sense of genre – Knott knew what his field was, and ploughed a straight furrow through it – and by its potential for period low-camp. In the case of this revival, designer Paul Farnsworth often seems a few years wide of the mark from the intended 1960s setting with furniture and clothing, but he is ingenious in covering the back wall with posters for films which all somehow allude to what's going on, from Jules Et Jim to The Thomas Crown Affair to the inevitable Hitchcock image.
However, in the play's first return to the West End since its 1966 première, we don't get Tarantino. We get Peter Bowles, and a couple of stars of Peak Practice. Bowles is almost reprising the role he played in Sleuth last year: the disguises, the ensnarement of others, the meticulous plan going awry... He just looms more and makes his voice more sepulchral.
This is Saskia Wickham's show. In what was described in the Sixties as "the most exhausting part in the West End", she has to remain onstage for virtually the entirety of the play whilst acting convincingly blind. Wickham succeeds utterly, and at the same time makes Susy a rounded character rather than a centre-stage dramatic device. It's an astonishing feat.
Overall, though, the single most glaring characteristic of Joe Harmston's production is how determinedly out of step it is with pretty much everything else in the vista of 2003 theatre. This is one of its major selling points, of course, and as curios go, it's a fascinating one, but a curio none the less.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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