In some ways, a thriller is the most difficult type of play to pull off. Even the flattest comedy may have one or two lines that make you smile, while the more cerebral play, however badly staged or performed, can be thought-provoking and open up new ideas. But a thriller which isn’t thrilling is a waste of everybody’s time.
Happily, that’s the last thing that can be said about Swanage Rep’s Wait Until Dark. On the contrary, it is gripping from the first moment, and the tension builds and builds to the almost unbearable climax. This is partly because it is a superbly crafted play (written by Frederick Knott, who also authored Dial M for Murder) and partly because of the performances of the excellent cast. Those of us who saw the first two in their three-play season knew that they were good, but we didn’t realise how good – Wait Until Dark makes a triumphant end to their stay in Swanage.
It is difficult to give a synopsis of the plot of any thriller, particularly this one, without being guilty of spoilers, but it involves a blind woman left alone in her house while her husband is away for the day, three villains, a doll which is not at all as innocent as it seems, and a fridge.
In the very first scene we meet Mike and Croker, two conmen who are as straight as a pair of corkscrews. Nicole Faraday as Croker (who in this production has become a conwoman) and Alasdair Saksena as Mike give convincing performances as would-be thugs who are actually no more than small-time crooks. Alasdair in particular has to worm his way into the heroine’s favour with his apparent concern for her, and brings off the switch from Cockney rogue to smooth-talking slime-bag very well. Their accomplice, Roat, is a different kettle of fish, a psychopath who is sinister in a much more subtle and dangerous way; as the Duke of Wellington nearly said, I don’t know what effect he had on the rest of the audience, but, by God, he frightened me. This was a terrific performance from James Taylor Thomas.
The heroine’s husband, Sam, is rather one-dimensional but a thoroughly good egg, and Alex Scott Fairley’s performances in the last two weeks have shown that it would be hard to find a better egg to play him. For the girl, Gloria, who is a catalyst for showing us aspect of the heroine’s character, the company selected a Wareham schoolgirl, Lily Taylor, and her remarkably talented performance loses nothing by comparison with the professionals around her.
Goodness knows how many actors I have seen on The Mowlem stage, but Emily Byrt as the blind heroine, Susy, is head and shoulders above the rest. Susy has lost her sight comparatively recently; think how vulnerable she must feel. Think, too, how frustrated she must be, frustration which occasionally spills over into stroppiness at the nearest person – in this case, usually poor Gloria. Yet she was obviously a strong woman before she went blind and that strength has not left her. Combine that with the keen perception and development of the other senses that blindness can bring, and you understand why she is not the easy pushover that the bad guys think she is. Emily brings out all these conflicting characteristics brilliantly. More than that, it is also a masterly physical performance: she reproduces uncannily well the particular way in which blind people often hold their heads and the wariness, born of uncertainty, with which they move. It is a terrific part for an actress as talented as Emily, but to call her performance outstanding does it less than justice.
When not playing Croker, Nicole Faraday has directed the play and makes the most of its many virtues. The play is strong enough not to need the creepy music she has used at vital moments, but otherwise not a foot is put wrong.
There are performances each night until 24 August, and the last night will mark the end of another season for Swanage Rep. Purbeck theatre-goers are already hoping that the company will be back in 2020.