Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Wait Until Dark - Canberra Repertory

Review by John Lombard

A blind woman enters her home - but she's not alone.  Criminals, silent as mice, watch her from all angles.  She can sense something is wrong, and she calls out in the darkness, but they all refuse to answer her.  We should be terrified for her, but we are just as scared for the crooks who are so close to detection.

The brilliance of Frederick Knott's thriller is that it takes an excellent scenario - blind woman victimised by con artists hiding in plain sight - and inverts it, making it as much the story of crooks trying to pull a con as a helpless woman trying to resist predators.  Director Jordan Best is at home with the fast-paced and twisting plot, and the alacrity and physicality of the performers ensures that we are too busy keeping up with the action to work out the planned surprises.

 Mike Trenon (Riley Bell) and his pal Croker (Nelson Blattman) are both working class crims, struggling with parole life and looking for sharp ways to supplement their income - and to stave off threats from a loan shark.  They are working their own small time angle when they hook up with the sociopathic Harry Roat (Zach Raffan) in the search for this play's MacGuffin, a doll that conceals a fortune in heroin.

The doll is hidden in the house of freshly blind Susy Henderson (Jenna Roberts), and the three pull an elaborate con to coax its location out of her.  Roberts plays Henderson not as a helpless damsel but as a "world champion blind lady".  Although newly blind the character is not hesitant, convincingly familiar with every detail of her private space and responding to challenges with a lot of grit and moxie.

Her mettle makes her an appropriate foe for the occasionally hapless crims, and the play is better for it.  This could easily be a chiller with a helpless woman pursued by unseen forces, but the conflict between predator and prey is more exciting, with both sides forced to call on all of their wit and will to prevail.  All credit here to Best and Roberts together for a smart character choice.

Riley Bell is appropriately smarmy as Mike Trenton, unctuous but with his eye on his own self-interest.  Nelson Blattman provides comic relief as the dim Croker flails about.  Neither one is entirely plausible as a smooth con artist, feeling more like the muscle in a gang than the brains.  Zach Raffan meanwhile is extremely charming as the cool and obviously dangerous Harry Roat, and as the drama escalates he becomes genuinely scary.

Annabel Foulds also shines as the spectacularly awful little girl who exists only to frustrate Susy Henderson and complicate the plot.  While it feels like a sideshow to the main plot, a sequence where she and Susy were cruel to each other was as gripping as anything else in the play.  Roberts' scenes with hubby Sam (a lovely Euan Bowen) were also a delight: loving, tender, and very real.

One lost opportunity was in the interplay between Bell and Roberts, especially at the end of the play when they have their final exchange.  While they have a good dynamic as solid buds, they lacked any real romantic sizzle, and this hurt the climax where a more passionate connection would have made the choices of the characters more plausible.  But then again, perhaps they were just upstaged by how well Roberts and Bowen work together.

The set by Michael Sparks was genuinely brilliant, with a central entrance door highlighting key entrances and exits, and a 45 degree tilt on the apartment setting up interesting sightlines where characters could move around objects, emphasising the "hide and seek" moments in the play.  The detail in the kitchen, from the fridge to the tea towels to the string of developed photos hanging above the sink, was arrestingly authentic.

Lighting design by  Cynthia Jolley-Rogers was also very strong (and extremely important to the play), with audacious moments where visibility was played with in a way highly resonant with the themes of the story.

It is tempting to underestimate a genre play like this one, but Wait Until Dark plays with the medium in inventive ways that many plays only dream of, and even manages to do it seamlessly as part of a gripping story.  The paranoia of the concept is palpable, with a vulnerable woman's private sanctum invaded, and the energy of the play never lets up until the terrifying, boldly staged climax.  Wait until dark if you have to, but don't wait too long to see this engrossing thriller.