Get Carter (Richmond Theatre)

Get Carter (Richmond Theatre, until Saturday, March 19th)

Memories of the iconic 1971 crime film thriller are never far from the mind as the curtain rises on Northern Stage’s imaginative take on Get Carter.

But with writer Torben Betts basing his tight and gripping theatre script on Ted Lewis’s original novel, Jack’s Return Home, and with very few nods to the film, this terrific version quickly establishes its own identity with the seven-member cast getting to the roots of grief, revenge and the effects of a changing landscape – be that personal, criminal, or industrial.

Before a line is spoken the impressive set by 59 Productions Ltd – a railway bridge leaking hundreds of bricks piled high, a wall onto which menacing shadows are projected, a coffin which quickly becomes a bar, and a shiny drum kit – manages to provide a backdrop which is both strangely comforting and intensely dark. One almost wonders if it is the Swinging Sixties as a liberating decade or the hellish north east communities that are crumbling. Kristina Hjelm’s lighting and James Frewer’s sound design add considerably to the overall atmosphere and tension, as does the clever evocative use of Nadine Shah singing haunting versions of songs by Geordie band The Animals.

The film is famous for wanting to be realistic and the play is no less so, though director Lorne Campbell has cut down on the violence to concentrate on the threats and the states of mind of the characters. It is interesting to learn that Betts had first thought of making the play a Greek tragedy, as there are strong elements of this style throughout, with fatal character flaws driving the story to an inevitable conclusion.

Kevin Wathen’s Jack Carter is no London gangster in the vein of Michael Caine’s cinema anti-hero; here is a born and bred gritty north easterner, returning home for the funeral of his brother, and investigating what appears to be his suspicious death. If the film’s Carter was a man of few words, the stage counterpart is often prosaic, with long and angry monologues charting his breakdown into deeper and deeper despair. It is a true tour de force by Wathen, who gets to direct much of this inner turmoil towards the ghost of his late brother, played by an unspeaking Martin Douglas (who also plays the drums in a modern recreation of Roy Budd’s memorable film jazz soundtrack, the rhythmic and relentless beats growing ever more chilling).

Michael Hodgson is powerful as both the hard-nosed but rakish crime boss Kinnear, and the often amusing Irish killer for hire, Con; Victoria Elliott is sensational as Frank’s drunken mistress Margaret and the confident, double-dealing Glenda; and Amy Cameron is tremendous as Frank’s far from innocent teenage daughter, Doreen. Donald McBride is strong in his three roles, especially as smooth-talking crooked businessman Brumby; and Benjamin Cawley gets to the heart of chauffeur Eric, a villain in the making representing an aspect of Jack’s past.

This is a piece of theatre to savour, a murky and compelling slice of Newcastle noir with psychological and moral depth, giving an unremitting insight into a dank and dismal underworld.

David Guest

Picture: Topher McGillis