Bad Girls actor Jack Ellis tells us why you should see thriller Wait Until Dark at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre

Wait Until Dark, starring Jack Ellis and Karina Jones. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Wait Until Dark, starring Jack Ellis and Karina Jones. Photo: Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

A revival of the classic thriller Wait Until Dark is currently running at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre. We spoke to one of its stars, Bad Girls actor Jack Ellis.

Written by Frederick Knott, author of Dial M for Murder, this revival comes from the the producers behind Night Must Fall and Birdsong.

Set during the social turbulence of 1960s London, blind woman Susy is left alone in her apartment with a group of conmen hatching an elaborate scam. Left to fend for herself with no phone and the house plunged into darkness, can she outwit her murderous visitors?

Q: What makes this revival so special...

What makes it so good and wonderful is we have a fantastic actress (Karina Jones) playing the lead part who is registered blind, so it makes it edgier, more interesting to watch and I think the audience picks that up.

When you start rehearsals normally you have the set marked out, in this case the whole set was actually already constructed and built so we had that all the way through which was great. There’s an element of trust, that’s very important... Karina has to sort of sense memory the whole set; she’s not only learning lines, she’s learning where everything is.

Ironically at times some people didn’t even realise she’s blind, they think she’s playing a blind part. It beggars a lot of questions about our views on disability. It’s quite difficult for her when people say ‘you’ve done very well, it’s really amazing you managed to do that’. She just wants to be told that she’s done a great performance.

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Q: More venues are really addressing the issue of making facilities and performances more accessible...

It’s imperative. I don’t think I’d want to do this show if it was with an actress who’s pretending to be blind. It’s not about political correctness, it’s about it wouldn’t be interesting for me. There is the integration thing, of everybody having the right to come to the theatre no matter what.

It’s the digital age, with everyone staring at their screens every moment of every day... we were having this discussion earlier, how long can theatre survive? I think it will because it’s the beginning of how we all communed. The Greeks discovered democracy by putting on plays and then having discussions. As long as people get together, want to show off (laughs) and want to communicate ideas... a political rally is a piece of theatre in its own way... the more we get everybody into the theatre and the more issues that are discussed there...

What this production does is provoke discussion and I think we may be having a question and answer sesssion after one of the shows. It’s a thriller, but it’s an unusual one in the way it’s written. There’s a touch of Pinter, who was inspired by this play, he mentioned it in one of his biographies; there’s a touch of Beckett at times.

There’s a lot of explication and explanation that goes on which is heightened and very fast. The audience starts to think ‘oh my God I don’t think I understand’ but then ‘it’s okay, it’s really simple’ and then they relax and watch the way we’re doing it. Which is hopefully enjoyable.

Q: This piece is a thriller, but it’s also a character piece...

Absolutely. One of the things that struck me during the first run-through is how rather desperate every single character is, even the heroes; there’s a sadness that runs through everyone at the end of the play - where are people going to go? It’s a very dark piece in the end and leaves people wanting to chat about it.

Q: Wait Until Dark is set in the 1960s, but its themes are relevant today...

The fact people are afraid to go out, that they’re just staying in, building walls around themselves. In a way that’s what this play is very much about - her environment and it being invaded, the insecurity that provokes. There are universal themes that run through the play which I hope we bring out.

Q: How have approached your role of Mike...

Like everything, which is to try to learn the actual text as much as I can before I get to the rehearsal room and then see what happens, because the relationship between actors depends on what the other actors are like.

We worked very intensely together, me and Karina. I’ve been very aware in rehearsals that not only am I her fellow actor, I’m also in a way her guide because I can stop a scene and say ‘you’re going to walk into the table there’ or ‘maybe we can use that’. In a way I’ve helped to direct because I’m inside the piece with her... it’s very difficult for the director so he has put a lot of faith in me and I applaud and thank him for that.

I don’t know what the play really is about until we start standing it up on its feet, then it starts to reveal itself and I have to open up to it more and more. The thing about acting is opening up and never closing down. It’s about listening. One of the famous phrases is about reaction not action, it’s more about reacting to Karina.

Mike starts off being a bit of a toughie, but he’s not a bad man; he’s a desperate man. When it turns out that this woman’s blind, that works on him. He’s compromised so you see him gradually become more sympathetic. For me that was interesting because in the past I’ve played so many bad guys.

I live in France now but see it when I come back. I can’t believe people still stop me in the street, presumably because Bad Girls is still playing somewhere on some channel. It’s slightly iconic in a way, which I had no idea it was. What’s interesting for me is seeing a bad guy turn... Mike doesn’t have a redemption, but he gets to change as the play goes on.

I was attracted to that part more than I would have been to Roat. He’s the classic bad guy but doesn’t have a lot of stage time. It’s a very fine actor (Tim Treloar) playing the part, he does a great job and notoriously Roat gets the reviews as they say.

As an actor of course you want good reviews but in terms of the structure of the play I think the core is me and Susy. The audience has to want to see this developing relationship. I think he falls a bit in love with her,

Q: Which is better, playing good guys or bad guys...

It depends on the role. I did Danforth in The Crucible about two or three years ago at The Old Vic. He’s a notoriously bad guy and I loved playing that part. They are the better parts in a way, in terms of they’re more interesting sometimes. The point about Wait Until Dark, it’s about a bad guy going good, so you have flashes of both; it’s the perfect cocktail. I would still play bad guys.

One of the things about Fenner (in Bad Girls) was he was a character that, at first, I wasn’t sure about. When we worked on it, the writers and producers were very interested in making him something terrible and he would suddenly become sympathetic. The audience would think for a few episodes ‘he’s not so bad’ and they’d start to forget.

It’s a bit like that in life sometimes, someone does a bad thing and then they make themselves more sympathetic but they can’t stop themselves from falling back into it unless they’ve really worked hard on themselves.

Q: Why should people come see Wait Until Dark...

It’s an old play re-invented in a way. There’s a thrill to it but at the same time there’s a bit of depth. It’s rather well written and there’s more substance to it than an Agatha Christie, there’s a lot of very clever playing. I’d say it’s a cross between The Woman in Black, watching Pinter and at times there’s a wonderful bit of a comedy vein running through it. So I would call it, in the words of John McGrath, who invented 7:84, a good night out.

Wait Until Dark was turned into a movie starring Audrey Hepburn in 1967. It’s often ranked one of the top 100 scariest films of all time.

It’s presented by The Original Theatre Company in association with Eastbourne Theatres and runs at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre to November 11.

The cast also includes Coronation Street’s Oliver Mellor, Graeme Brookes, Shannon Rewcroft and Thomas McCarron.

Suitable for ages 12 plus, read our review here.