TIM WONG asks if Circa Theatre’s new stage production of “Wait Until Dark” holds a candle to the play’s 1966 film version.

RISING quietly above the ‘psycho-biddy’ histrionics of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – grand actresses whose dwindling careers gained unexpected traction through notoriety in such hag horror classics as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, and Strait Jacket – Terence Young’s screen version of Wait Until Dark is a controlled, hermetically-sealed thriller. If conventionally lumped into the same women-in-peril bracket of sixties cinema – its home intrusion premise a cousin of Lady in a Cage’s handicapped dame in terror, where a frazzled Olivia de Havilland, trapped inside her mezzanine elevator, is traumatised by a psychotic James Cann – it’s important to note the picture circumvents these cruder tropes. Through its elegant, headstrong lead (Audrey Hepburn), scenery-chewing adversary (Alan Arkin, the unhinged star of the film), and micromanaged turn of events, Wait Until Dark is not in the least bit lurid, but a superior, clockwork suspenser that neither overreaches nor degenerates like its campier peers. While the film holds up as a gripping chamber piece, how would it fare transposed back to its original stage setting? Until November 8, Circa’s presentation of the Frederick Knott play tests this water, with variable results.

Appropriating the film’s Notting Hill abode – an almost identical interior by set designer John Hodgkins, the layout of which is integral to the choreography of the play – Circa’s production is by all accounts a close match. Adhering rigidly to the premise – blind, home alone Susy (Ban Abdul) must thwart the con artistry of three unruly thugs pursuing a heroin stash believed to be concealed in her apartment – the opening night was performed briskly and with aplomb. Yet for all Knott’s meticulous plotting, delivered through scenes that are never too laden with exposition and carry a terrific, anxious momentum, the play’s ability to frighten is surprisingly constrained. Perhaps it’s the shrill, abrupt passages of Henry Mancini’s score; lifted from the film to punctuate the changeover between scenes, they provide ample atmosphere but somewhat fraudulent, foreseeable shocks. Or the upending humour, chiefly by way of Toby Leach’s Croker, an uncouth, cockney third wheel whose schtick threatens a change of tone (to keep it in context, his comic relief was something of an ice breaker on the night).

Critically, it’s not until the very last moments that this theatre piece manages to outmanoeuvre its more effective film adaptation. Lunged at by the villainous Roat (Tom Gordon, a smarmier alternative to Arkin’s prickly sociopath), and determined to prevail, Susy levels the playing field by plunging her apartment into darkness, with the audience spectacularly enveloped in pitch-black. In the ensuing struggle, Roat discovers Susy’s refrigerator has been overlooked, and the images conjured by light emitting from behind the violently contested fridge door are striking, and well beyond the limitations of cinematography. How the actors negotiate the set in ‘blindness’ is a feat in itself, especially given the rough ‘n’ tumble action prescribed, and the play’s best attribute is therefore the darkness it so climactically employs.

Elsewhere, Wait Until Dark translates with some datedness. How relevant a play of its genre is today – aside from its lasting entertainment value – I’m unsure of, and the subject of home invasions could be bettered explored on stage by modifying a work of Funny Games’ conceit, which deals in viewer participation and complicity, as well as addressing (problematically) the pervasiveness of sadistic violence and torture in popular culture. Knott’s most successful creation, Dial M for Murder, might have also made for a feasible return: not because it offers any sort of commentary on the world, but for its amusing, theatrical intent. Where the laughter may seem misplaced in Circa’s Wait Until Dark, Dial M for Murder beckons towards comedy. With its sportsmanlike gestures, ridiculous genteelism, and Midsomer Murders-style enclave, the play Alfred Hitchcock adapted in 1954 ought to be considered the director’s most throwaway film, and best suited to the self-containment of the stage. Shot on autopilot, embellished in 3D, the movie version is nonetheless “riveting artifice”, as I once wrote. The same caveat can be applied to this production of Wait Until Dark, which in turning out the lights, finally contrives to be the thriller its film alternative is rather effortless at being.

See also:
» Wait Until Dark (Reviewed by Helen Sims)