They should have asked Jack Ellis to write the marketing blurb for Wait Until Dark which is at the Everyman in Cheltenham from 12th September. Catching up with him mid rehearsal, his absolute enthusiasm for this edge-of-the seat thriller is highly infectious.
“It’s funny, moving and extremely scary,” he tells me with relish, adding thoughtfully: “In many ways it’s about darkness.”
Written by Frederick Knott, best known for writing Dial M For Murder, Wait Until Dark is the play which inspired the 1967 film that earned Audrey Hepburn Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress. Widely regarded as one of the scariest films of all time, this nail-biting thriller is set amidst the social turbulence of 1960s London. Susy, a blind woman, becomes the victim of an elaborate scam hatched by a group of conmen. Left to fend for herself, she eventually finds a way to turn the tables on her oppressors.
“It is evocative of its time and in some ways it reminds me of early Pinter, who was just starting out when the film was made,” Jack tells me.
“Some of the dialogue is very Pinteresque. It could be terribly old fashioned, but we’ve got a really good young director [The Original Theatre Company’s Alastair Whatley] and he manages to make it feel fresh while keeping a sense of period.”
Acknowledging that scams make regular headlines today, Jack says that the production definitely has a modern feel.
“It’s a 1960s version of Hustle. In fact, think Hustle meets Woman in Black meets Pinter,” he says, laughing. “But it does weave a web that destabilises the audience. It is a shocker and there is real violence in it,” he cautions.
But as well as the writing, Jack is really excited that for the first time in the play’s history, the production will feature a blind actress in the role of Susy.
“Karina Jones is absolutely amazing and her being in the play makes rehearsals fascinating,” he marvels. “It adds a totally different dimension; the danger is heightened and hugely ratcheted up as a result of Karina playing the role.”
Talking of roles, Jack’s career has been almost without pause since leaving drama school and spans a vast breadth of credits. From soaps such as Coronation Street to The National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company and the West End, he was also part of the Old Vic’s much-lauded production of Richard III with Kevin Spacey, directed by Sam Mendes.
But in recent years it is fair to say that he has cornered the marker somewhat in playing baddies. Perhaps most memorably the twisted prison screw Jim Fenner in the enormously popular TV series Bad Girls.
“Bad Girls turned me into a baddie in the public domain,” he agrees, “but characters like Jim are more interesting. As a young man playing juvenile leads I was never really comfortable. With a baddie the audience has to lock on to something either likeable or that they recognise, which makes the character much more intriguing to play.
“I don’t think anyone is purely good; we are multi-dimensional. Is it nature or nurture? Probably a combination of the two,” he says, pondering and then answering the conundrum.
Playing Fenner also gave Jack the opportunity to consider how a man might cross the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour and become so desensitised that evil, manipulation and cruelty become the norm.
“I hope most people would say that I’m quite a nice bloke, but one of the most liberating things about Jim Fenner was that it gave me a chance to see how possible it is to go over the edge. Research is interesting. That’s my job. Could I be a sociopath or psychopath? I don’t think so, but it is interesting to explore.”
Bad boys may be his speciality, but Jack, a self-confessed feminist, is the polar opposite. Living in Paris, here he helps support refugees through the work with The Good Chance Theatre Company, an organisation that built its first theatre in the Jungle refugee and migrant camp in Calais in 2015 and that offers a place for people to come to express themselves.
“The work I am doing with The Good Chance helps women to have a voice; for them to be more than just mothers or wives,” he explains, clearly passionate about helping those whose lives have been so cruelly blighted.
Away from the French capital, there are places on the impending tour of Wait Until Dark that Jack is very happy to be visiting.
Cheltenham and Salisbury are two dates on the tour that hold a particular memory for Jack, who recalls a family road trip to see his older brother perform in his first job, in The Importance of Being Earnest, in both towns.
“My big brother, Robin Ellis, was the original TV Poldark, but his first two jobs in the 60s were in Salisbury and Cheltenham. We travelled down in the Humber Hawk with mum and dad and I remember that my middle brother was revising for his A Levels. At some point in the trip the car got stolen and my brother lost all his A Level notes. He still managed to pass,” recalls Jack with a grin.
And with projects bubbling away well into the future, Jack isn’t short of work opportunities. But what about relaxation; what does he do for down time?
“I work,” he laughs. “I never wanted to go to Hollywood or play Hamlet; I just want to do interesting work. I hate learning lines – that’s the boring bit – but I really enjoy research and reading.”
It might make us jump out of our collective skins, but I reckon we’ll all enjoy watching the fruit of Jack’s labours in Wait Until Dark.
© Vicky Edwards