Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

From a Jack to a King

Bob Carlton
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
(1997)

Friday afternoon and I'm shattered: finish work at quarter to four, bundle everything away (why does everyone want to use all the equipment on a day when you're in a tearing hurry to get away?), lock up, get changed, drive to the Metro station for four o'clock, meet the kids, get into Newcastle for 4:30, dash along the the Theatre Royal (with just enough time to stand outside and have the first fag since half past one), then in and collapse into the seat for curtain at five.

Not the best way to start a theatre visit!

But I'm so glad I went. From a Jack to a King is exactly the sort of show you need to pick you up after a hard day. A mixture of Shakespeare and rock 'n' roll, it carries the audience along till, two and a bit hours later, with sides aching from laughter and those glorious fifties rock 'n' roll songs whizzing around your head, you emerge into the first (pouring) rain for weeks—and you don't care!

Bob Carlton has taken the story of the Scottish Play and set it in Tin Pan Alley—or the rock 'n' roll equivalent. We have the manager, Duke Box (don't groan yet: it gets worse!), with his star Terry King (an Elvis figure, naturally); we have the Witches (Terry King's backing group, and bikers to boot!); we have the central character, Eric Glamis, the architypal wimp who gets rid of Terry King by loosening the wheels of his motorbike ("Is this a spanner I see before me?") and goes on to become the star himself, under his new name, Thane Cawdor; we have Queenie, whom he loves desperately, from whose hands all the perfumes of Arabia will not wash off—wait for it!—the oil!

But I'm giving too much away. Suffice it to say that Macduff also makes an appearance—Joe Macduff, that is, a Sam Spade character who introduces us to Eric Glamis and laments that "Of all the cities in all the world, he had to walk into mine"!

The dialogue is mainly Shakespeare, taken from so many plays you soon lose track, and the music is mainly rock numbers from the fifties. And there are so many of them: "From a Jack to a King", of course, but there's also "Leader of the Pack", "Tell Laura I Love Her"... so many, and so well done.

For this is a multi-talented cast—they're actors, of course, but they're also singers and musicians, and most play more than one instrument—and this is what's needed, for Jack is very much an ensemble piece. There's no one who could be called a weak link, but two did stand out. Stuart Nurse's Duke Box, the appalling manager, is a superb comic creation, with the humour coming as much from his playing as from the witty script, and Sarah Whittuck's Laura (the only non-Shakespearean character) was a delight—every fluffhead gangster's moll / groupy you've ever some across in any play or film!

Quite how Laura has slipped into the story is not really clear. There's certainly no equivalent in the Scottish play. I rather suspect she's there to give the dead Terry King (a strange amalgam of Duncan and Banquo) the opportunity to sing "Tell Laura I Love Her"! Be that as it may, the talented Miss Whittuck (Forbidden Plant fans will remember her as Miranda in the 1994 and 1996 tours) made her indispensible in this version of the story!

If I have a reservation, it's that I did not find Scott Fleming's Thane Cawdor quite as convincing (and I mean that in the sense that any character in a play of this kind can be said to be convincing) as his wimpish Eric Glamis. I wanted him to be really evil, and he wasn't. I would like to see the show again to confirm it, but I suspect the fault was probably more in the writing than in the performance—the one weakness in a very cleverly created script.

The pace never slows. The audience is swept along, and even those who don't really know Shakespeare or fifties music get as excited as those who do. The 16-year-olds I took were gobsmacked, and loved it.

Obviously it invites comparison with Bob Carlton's previous show, the Olivier Award-winning Return to the Forbidden Plant, and I have to say that I think it is better. Forbidden Planet was a great show, but it was rather less focused than Jack. To the extent that plot matters in a show of this nature, Jack comes out ahead, for it relies less on special effects and the story is more followable. (Sorry about that. Can't think of another word offhand.) My feeling is that in Jack he succeeded in what he was trying to do in Forbidden Planet.

A word about the tech side. The Sam Spade / Bogey character suggested film noir, and Rodney Ford's set (two levels with interconnecting iron stairs, built on three trucks) and the background illuminated signs (one for Raymond's Revuebar) not only supported this, but also created a nicely sleazy atmosphere, well supported by Chris Jaegger's lighting design.

Now, great theatre it isn't. This is not the territory of the RSC—it's not even the territory of Cameron Mackintosh!—but it is superb entertainment. The feel-good factor is terrific! The short run originally planned has been extended to a full year, so the chances of it coming to a theatre near you are good. If you fancy a show which is fun and intellectually quite witty, you'll find nothing better.

I'll certainly be going again when it returns to my area in the autumn. Thoroughly recommended.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan