Get Carter

Adapted from the novel by Ted Lewis by Jonathan Holloway
Red Shift
Gala Theatre, Durham, and touring

Production photograph

Having, over the last few years, seen a couple of appalling stage adaptations of gangster films, I approached Get Carter with more than a little trepidation. I was a little reassured to realise, on reading the programme, that adapter and director Jonathan Holloway had by-passed the film and gone back to the original book. But then there have been some dreadful stage adaptations of novels, too. But of course there have also been some pretty dire original plays, so, before the curtain went up, I determined to put all reservations out of my mind and let the performance do its work.

The style of the piece is a strange amalgam of the cinematic, the physical, normal realistic stage story-telling and, in the second half, direct narration. Holloway also uses flashback and interior dialogue. It is cinematic in that it is told in a series of short, sharp scenes, and its debt to phsical theatre shows in the very stylised, slow-motion violence (but with a fair amount of spurting blood) and, in the direct narration, brief mimes of the effect of what is being narrated rather than the actions themselves. The interior dialogue is between anti-hero Jack Carter and his brother Frank, whose death he is investigating. Many of the stylistic changes are signalled by - perhaps accompanied by would be a better way of expressing it - a lighting change.

And 24 named parts are played by just six actors. In fact, as Jack Lord only plays Jack Carter, it is more accurate to say that five actors play 23 parts. That in itself could be a major cause of confusion to an audience, particularly if they don't already know the story. But the company differentiate their characters well by voice and body language and there is never a time when we wonder "who is (s)he playing now?" - no mean achievement, that!

The set consists of three bare brick walls with a battered corrugated plastic ceiling. On the back wall stage right there is a kitchen sink with associated piping and on the left a doorless entrance with a backing flat, exactly the same as the rest of the set, behind. Down the stage left side is a row of lockers which double as a gents urinal, a door, a kind of cinema projection box and a place for storing costumes and props. The furniture consists of two benches which can be arranged in many configurations, two chairs and a table. The floor, the same colour as the walls, is partially raked. In the dim light between scenes the actors move the furniture around or change costumes (coats primarily), although some costume changes take place off-stage.

It really shouldn't work, but it does. Holloway has developed a very idiosyncratic theatrical language which does take some getting used to but, when our expectations have adjusted, it is very effective, as the long applause at the end showed. It is gritty, violent and bleak and set in a world which - fortunately! - most of us will never know, and yet the presentation distances us from the grittiness, violence and bleakness just enough to reflect on what it has to say about people.

"Get Carter" plays at the Gala until 15th and then tours to the Derby Guildhall, the Wales Millennium Centre (Cardiff), the Roses (Tewkesbury), the Wolverhampton Arena, Mac Birmingham, the Depot (Swansea), the Aberdare Coliseum, the Torch (Milford Haven), the Beaufort (Ebbw Vale) and the Wyseside Theatre, Builth Wells, where the tour ends on 1st April.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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