IN some surveys, Mike Hodges’ 1971 film has been voted the best British movie of all time. Michael Caine’s star performance as gangster Jack Carter, returning home to Newcastle to avenge the murder of his brother, remains one of the great iconic moments of British screen acting.
Get Carter | Rating: *** | Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
So when Northern Stage of Newcastle took on the task of creating a new stage version of Get Carter - playing briefly in Glasgow this week - they knew they were dealing with a story that has become part of the UK’s national mythology; an ugly tale of the moment when modest postwar prosperity began to turn greedy and rancid, and to decay into a toxic municipal brew of illicit deal-making and violent crime.
The company’s response to the challenge - led by director Lorne Campbell and writer Torben Betts - is to return to the novel on which Get Carter was based, Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis. The result is something very different from Hodges’ fast-paced action-based movie, with its sweeping Newcastle vistas. Set on a stage made small and dark by a mountain of tumbled red bricks that fills most of its depth, the show comes across as a kind of two-hour monologue by Kevin Wathen’s stocky, youthful and uneasily voluble Jack, addressed to the pale figure of his dead brother Frank who haunts the stage, and interrupted by dialogue scenes with the other main characters, and - on one occasion - by a long quasi-comic soliloquy from Jack’s fellow-gangster Con, played with grotesque flair by Michael Hodgson.
There’s no doubt that the themes explored in these long monologues and dialogues are fascinating ones, with plenty to say about the story of Britain in the postwar era: they include good and evil, the imperatives of capitalism, the emotional emptiness of grasping materialism, and the very meaning of alienation, in the age of Sartre and Camus.
Yet the overall effect of the show is astonishingly static and untheatrical. We hear the story of the drama if we listen carefully enough to the words, but we never have the sense of seeing it, either in the very limited action, or the strangely stilted performances, or that overwhelming heap of new red bricks, which evokes neither the sooty old nor the concrete new of 1960’s Britain. In the end, the show seems more of a meditation on Lewis’s themes, filtered through the voices of the actors and some nightmarish set-pieces, than a stage version of Get Carter; and the lack of narrative flow and real kinetic energy makes it a tough show to watch, demanding intense concentration, for a relatively modest reward.
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until Saturday.