Dark, well produced and well paced, and yet the most striking thing about Northern Stage’s Get Carter is not what is in Torben Betts’s adaptation, but what isn’t.
Would Northern Stage do justice to the legendary Get Carter? I was prepared to stake my reputation on this when I made this my top recommendation of the season. Northern Stage have a long track record of decent and innovative productions, and Torben Betts has a great track record as a writer. And yet, I had a few nagging doubts. When I saw their offerings last year, both Torben Betts and Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell made some odd artistic decisions that stopped them living up to their full potential. And I was still reeling from a very disappointing (and utterly incomprehensible) version ten years ago. Well, I needn’t have worried. Get Carter is an excellent choice to put on stage if you get it right, and they did.
Get Carter is, of course, best known for the film with Michael Caine, who has the amazing ability to play any character in any film as the Michael Caine character and pull it off. He could probably have got away with saying “My name is Jack Carter. Not a lot of people know this, by my niece Doreen is actually my daughter.” Such is his dominance of any film he touches, it’s easy to forget it was already a great story without him. Set in the criminal world on 1960s Newcastle, Jack returns home for his brother’s funeral. Already a veteran of London’s criminal underworld, Jack correctly guesses his brother’s death wasn’t really an accident and people are feigning ignorance. What he doesn’t realise straight away is that he’s getting drawn into a power struggle in a web of criminal empires, each one trying to play Jack off against their rivals. Jack might have been an amoral hand for hire in London, but on learning what really happened to his family, he becomes a vengeful vigilante, dishing out somewhat arbitrary justice, with your fate largely down to how much you’ve pissed him off.
The production I saw ten years ago was heavily let down by a small cast playing so many parts it was impossible to tell who was who. Torben Betts sensibly opted for a cast of seven playing eleven characters between them, with the story condensed to avoid a confusing multitude of bit parts. Familiar names include Donald McBride, taking a break from being canny Geordie fellas and pantomime dames to play a pair of shady godfathers, and Kevin Wathen as Jack Carter, opting (very wisely) not to try to imitate Michael Caine and instead play Carter far more like the equally unhinged bartender he played in What Falls Apart.
My favourite touch, however, was the inclusion of Martin Douglas as Frank, Jack’s late brother. Drawing heavily on the theme of Frank being a drummer, Frank is often by the drum kit providing the atmospheric music, and, apart from one odd moment near the beginning when Frank was sitting by the drum kit in silence whilst music played through the speakers, this gave a suitably atmospheric setting to the play. But what I really liked was when the silent Frank follows Jack around to witness his revenge.
Turning my attention to the set and staging, something otherwise great Northern Stage productions are let down by weird choices of set. Here, they went for a backdrop of piles of bricks and the derelict brick factories, which on the whole did the job fine. I did wonder if the massive amount of space taken up by the set would concertina the action into too cramped an area, but that worked out fine. The touch I really liked, however, was the light and silhouettes on the wall at the right. Sometimes used for the people Jack talks to on the phone, sometimes used for the more gruesome murders, that was creative staging at Northern Stage’s finest.
But the thing that was most striking about Torben Betts’s adaptation is not what’s the stage version but what isn’t. One of the most iconic scenes in the film was a naked Michael Caine pointing his gun at the baddies after he’d been shagging the landlady, so I wondered how this would be done in the play. The answer? Not at all. Betts, I gather, didn’t want Jack Carter’s shagging around Newcastle to distract from the story. In fact, Torben Betts didn’t see the film at all, going entirely on the book. It would be interesting to think what script he would have written had he known the film, but that’s a mystery we will never know. But if it was his intention to focus the play away from Michael Caine’s arse and on instead to the the bloody and brutal gang warfare, he did the job handsomely.
The only niggle I had with the play was that a couple of bits of the story felt over-cut and didn’t quite make sense. It wasn’t explained how Doreen was kidnapped or how Carter found her in time, and the Gateshead car park scene now seemed to involve Glenda playing the notorious blue movie on the roof of the car park, which isn’t exactly the first place I’d have had in mind. But those are extremely minor criticisms of otherwise a job well done.
But don’t go away. There are another two Torben Betts plays coming in the next few months. Orange Tree hit Invincible tours to the Gala Theatre next week, and then new play The National Joke comes to the Stephen Joseph Theatre for a long run in the summer. Too early to say if 2016 is the year of Torben Betts on chrisontheatre, but he couldn’t have had a better start with Get Carter.