First published in The Times, Monday February 22 2016
Get Carter, a gritty, cynical gangster film, in which Michael Caine’s antihero wanders Newcastle seeking vengeance for his brother’s murder, has grown in critical reputation since its release in 1971 and is considered by some to be a masterpiece of British cinema. The same cannot be said of the source novel, Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis, which languished out of print for many years until being republished under the film’s title in the early Nineties.
At the very least, this ambitious stage adaptation, by the prolific playwright Torben Betts, makes you wish Lewis’s crime thrillers were better known. Where the film is all surface gloss, the novel and Betts’s script immerse us in the point of view of a man whose mind is increasingly unhinged by what he discovers grubbing around in the seedy underbelly of his hometown.
Pic: Topher McGrillis
Betts’s adaptation takes the form of a string of tense encounters between prodigal son Jack Carter (played by Kevin Wathen) and assorted underworld kingpins and hangers-on, ranging from Michael Hodgson’s louche crime boss, Cyril Kinnear, to Doreen (Amy Cameron), Jack’s distrustful niece. The seven-strong ensemble switches impressively among multiple characters. Victoria Elliott, funny and tragic as the murdered Frank’s drunken mistress, is unrecognisable in her dual role as Glenda, a duplicitous femme fatale.
Taking its cue from the hard-bitten narratives of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Lorne Campbell’s production places primary importance on characterisation and the painstaking creation of atmosphere. Offstage characters and some of the more violent episodes are conjured up by throwing shadows on the bridge that forms the centrepiece of the set: an impressionistic recreation of Newcastle’s cityscape, designed by 59 Productions. The soundtrack, which blends jazz drums, performed live by Martin Douglas, with haunting new recordings of classic songs from the city’s most famous band, The Animals, further evokes the place and period.
The spell is broken somewhat towards the end when the plot kicks in and the body count stacks up. Frankly, by that stage, it’s hard to care who killed Frank. As a nightmarish vision of the moral rot accompanying post-industrial decline, however, Campbell’s production is absorbing. Never has the song We Gotta Get Out of This Place sounded more urgent or more menacing.
Box office: 0191 230 5151, to Mar 5; touring to Apr 30. Northernstage.co.uk