The National Joke: a stereotype too far

Hot on the heels of two excellent plays, The National Joke is a decent play – but an avoidable flaw stands in the way of a hat trick.

The three women from The National Joke, staring at the sunPerhaps I’d set my expectations too high. At the start of this year, I’d seen one good play and one so-so play from Torben Betts prior to 2016, and then I saw two great plays earlier this year: his adaptation of Get Carter for Northern Stage, and the Original Theatre Company’s tour of earlier success Invincible. It was the latter play that gave me the most hope: Invincible was a comedy that sharply observed the attitudes some middle-class socialists hold of the real working class which was funny and astute without getting preachy. Work this magic on this play, this time set at the other end of a political spectrum, and there’s be every reason to believe this should be such a success.

And for the first three quarters of the play, I kept the faith. Out goes a grotty northern street and in comes the home of a Tory MP so extravagant it makes moat cleaning and duck islands look positively frugal. Still, that’s all so last decade. How Rupert St John-Green MP really stands to grab the public’s attention is a performance that could have been scripted by Andrew Mitchell himself. Taking a break from watching a solar eclipse in his home, he wanders on to the nearby beach and ends up giving a most, shall I say, “memorable” exchange with a group of disaffected constituents. Rupert of course strongly denied calling them “proles” – he insists he used nothing stronger than “oiks” – but luckily it’s been filmed and put on YouTube so that the entire country can make up their own minds. Continue reading

Invincible: the street that socialism forgot

Alan banging on about football even though no-one else is interested
Alan banging on about football even though no-one else is interested

Coming hot on the tails of successes for both author and company, Torben Betts’s Invincible is an deliciously excruciating yet profound exploration of Britain’s endless obsession with the class system.

So, Torben Betts round two and Original Theatre Company round two. After their respective successes last month with Get Carter and Flare Path, expectations were good for Invincible. As well as the recent performance of both writer and company, I’d heard a lot of good things about this play with its original run at the Orange Tree Theatre, on the subject of what many of us call Guardian-columnist socialism – that is, well-off people who think they’re all pro-working class but are pretty clueless about what the real working class are like. So it all looked rather promising to see a play about a London couple who are forced to move ‘oop north the slums of Newcastle-upon-Yorkshire where Thatcher closed the steel mines and they’ve never heard of cricket. So when we saw preparations for a visit from the neighbours and the works of Karl Marx are laid out on the table, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Torben Betts isn’t the only playwright to be writing about this sort of culture clash; John Godber did an interesting job with Poles Apart last year, where a pro-working class actress and theatre manager got a rude awakening when bona fide working class scaffolders pay a visit. Godber’s play, however, was a subtle culture clash – Betts instead goes for a blatant and deliciously excruciating culture clash. Emily and Oliver begin preparing for a party with the kind of anxiety that only the wealthy middle class care about. Quite a lot of signs that Emily wears the trousers in this marriage, except that they’re not married because everyone knows that’s a patriarchal ploy to oppress women and Oliver is keen to express his non-sexist credentials by allowing his partner to make all the decisions. First to arrive is trashy Dawn, who seemingly has a thing for silver-spooned gentlemen; but before things get too out of hand on that front, in comes overweight husband Alan, whittering on about the football oblivious to the fact no-one else cares. But don’t worry, Emily helpfully explains to Alan that football is merely a ploy to suppress the working class from revolution because they’re so easily brainwashed. And that sets the tone of pretty much the whole party. Continue reading

Get Carter: Carter without Caine

Jack about to fire his gun. Again.

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. Continue reading