Craig Austin reviews the cult favourite Get Carter by Mike Hodges, a Northern Stage production at Richmond Theatre.
15 March 2016
Prior to its Britpop–era misappropriation as some kind of archive plaything for readers of Loaded magazine, the unwavering cult of Mike Hodges’ Get Carter was always something that had existed within the margins and shadows of British popular culture. Denied even a VHS release until the early ‘90s its gritty celluloid reputation had mostly grown via sporadic late night screenings on BBC2 and the retrospective veneration of its brooding Roy Budd soundtrack.
Yet only a few years later and having long since eclipsed its literary source material, Ted Lewis’s Jack’s Return Home, the murky cult of Carter inadvertently found itself at the heart of a vulgar revivalist knees-up; an opportunistic English illusion that transported Carter from the dirty backstreets of Tyneside and into the narcissistic pop-farce of ‘Cool Britannia’ and Stella Street.
Now firmly installed in the lexicon of the ‘lad’, the phrase ‘you’re a big man, but you’re out of shape’ absurdly finds itself at the heart of beery, blokey bonhomie; its function as a precursor to murder having been conveniently neutered.
Given this context, it’s somewhat reassuring to learn that Northern Stage’s theatrical production of Get Carter is explicit about it being Lewis’s book that forms its core inspiration, and not its better known big screen incarnation. Though wisely retaining the film’s decision to relocate Carter to the blackened buildings of post-‘60s Newcastle it is evident from the moment that Carter’s train carriage peels away from Kings Cross station that this ambitious and self-assured adaptation by Torben Betts is resolutely Geordie in tone, setting and dialect.
A solitary coffin, a coal-smoke haze, and a towering cascade of bricks form the imposing backdrop to a production that does not sugar-coat either its industrial content or language, witnessing as we do a carousel of turmoil and brutality that flits between boozers, torturers and pornographers. Kevin Wathen’s Jack Carter embodies the pent-up fury of a demented Geordie bulldog; his maelstrom of a mind poisoned by the fuel of hate and vengeance, yet one whose back-story is revealed in increasingly sombre increments.
Director, Lorne Campbell, has spoken of the challenge inherent in repositioning the focus of the story from the character’s external actions as explored on film, and back to Jack Carter’s internal life as initially depicted in Lewis’s novel. As such, the whisky-sodden murder of Jack’s brother Frank propels the story not only in its device as a starting gun for violent retribution, but also as a means of untangling the unseemly familial web that knots them together. Frank appears onstage and ghost-like throughout, a mute witness to proceedings, and often behind the drum-kit whose jazz inflections provide increasing levels of intensity and pathos to proceedings. Ostensibly intended to represent Frank’s adoration of escapist Americana these musical interventions provide a nagging counterpoint to the misery of the harsh reality that plays out before us, a troublesome reminder of a soul and a spirit expunged, the crushing victory of circumstance over ambition.
In spite of this venue’s ornate decoration, its crimson velveteen walls acting as an ironic evocation of the casinos and cabaret clubs of early 70s Newcastle, this is physically intimidating theatre; a veracity made abundantly clear to a smattering of audience members in the front row who at one point are compelled to hurl themselves out of the path of a rogue bottle of Johnnie Walker. Industrial expletives are tossed around like hand grenades, not least by the female characters whose potent sexuality appears to have become necessarily weaponised within the grubby environs of Carter’s increasingly claustrophobic existence of ‘kill or be killed’.
Hebburn’s Victoria Elliott portrays a wonderfully black-hearted Margaret, the morally bankrupt foil to Jack’s inherent dead-eyed ruthlessness. The manner in which she and Wathen stalk each other in a back-street duel of suspicious resentment is a joy, the unrepentant Geordie vernacular acting as a weapon to both entice and impale. We sense that both of these characters are ultimately doomed yet we are magnetically drawn into the throes of their malevolent dance regardless, a back-street power play shrouded in depravity and despair.
As we will learn, Jack is all-but-dead before the story even begins; a demise that finally takes place upon the slag-heaps upon which he and is brother once played, yet one that is resolutely plotted in London. As a series of disembodied phone calls takes place in silhouette between the two cities we are pointedly reminded of the cruel irony that underpins the illicit relationship between Carter and Audrey, the girlfriend of his gangland boss and seemingly the only woman to have permeated his coal-black heart.
‘Fuck the past, Jack’ she softly intones. ‘The future is all we have now’.
Northern Stage’s production of Get Carter runs until 30 April, taking in venues in Coventry, Doncaster, Durham, Salford and Southampton.
All photographic images by Topher McGrillis