Jack Carter

Out for revenge: Kevin Wathen as Jack Carter. Pictures: Topher McGrillis

Get Carter

Coventry Belgrade

****

DESPITE the acute Geordie accent, you have a faint feeling of recognition as Jack Carter (Kevin Wathen) fills us in on the reasons for his return to the North East: a conviction that his brother Frank, who died in a car accident, was in fact murdered, and a determination to feel his way behind the seedy dealings and double crossings of the newly emerging casino world of Newcastle and Gateshead, track down the perpetrator and dispose of him.

There's a feeling that, for all his bravado, Jack might be a bit of Glendaa loser: a bit of a swaggerer, himself not averse to a bit of stifling or pushing someone to his death, but a small time gangster whose determination to stick his nose into what others see as their business is doomed to come to a sticky end.

And indeed, so it does, for his erstwhile friend Eric (played quite straight, as an upright and a rather suspiciously respectable besuited southerner, by Benjamin Cawley), who turns out to be behind the murky business, in fact despatches Jack, not the other way round.

Victoria Elliott as Glenda

In fact, in Northern Stage's production as Jack's first soliloquy unfolds - there are at least two long monologues in the first half - you realise what the echoes are. Ted Lewis, who wrote the novel Jack's Return Home on which the 1971 Mike Hodges film starring Michael Caine was based, was an admirer of Raymond Chandler, and, if you replace the accent with an American drawl, you realise that the long monologues and first person used as a technique for getting into the mindset of the main character are in places pure Chandler.

Torben Betts, in his adaptation, certainly captures that element to splendid effect. This is a man mesmerised by his own mind, an operator who works by hit-and-miss, not without some shrewdness but not the kind of brain to battle it out with the big boys.

It's a world where distrust rules, and there's always a knife ready for your back. I liked Wathen's approach to the role, which is quite a tour-de-force for any actor, but I can't say he often engaged me. Authentic though the Northern accent was, it requires special projection to be grasped, and that was not forthcoming. The role is also monochrome - perhaps another Chandler element; any variety comes from the other characters, who were pretty good overall, with one outstanding performer.

Even with childhood rifle in hand, Jack seemed much like a cheeky chappie just waffling away. The worst thing is the wearisome excess of expletives Betts allows into the script: as we know, an expletive adds nothing, merely emphasis. Early on the script suffered appallingly from this ill-judged imbalance. They weren't even funny.

There were other drawbacks: the music was supposed to be a feature, recalling the success of Roy Budd's quite nostalgic jazz-cum-pop score for the film, and indeed, one did feel a nice shiver in the spine wBrimby and Jackhen The Animals' House of the Rising Sun wafted across us, reminding us that that was originally a Newcastle band.

The touring set (by 59 Productions) - a gargantuan, one might say overstated pile of brick rubble supposed to remind us of the run-down, Gorbals-type ghettoes - played some role in creating atmosphere, though far more important was the Lighting Designer, Kristina Hjelm, who lit the stage proper with pinpoint skill and some staggeringly powerful use of shadow-images, but above all created a kind of glowering cyclorama above the brickpile whose colouring - greys and oranges, pink-yellows, or all of these folding into each other - generated its own really tense atmosphere that somehow enhanced whole passages of text considerably, literally colouring the words.

Donald McBride as Brumby with Kevin Wathen as Jack

Paradoxically, one of the 'other' characters who had a marked impact on the play's unfolding didn't speak a word. Drummer Martin Douglas, in between bursts of not very instructive but finely and expressively performed material, was onstage virtually the whole play: a gentle, not ghostly but supportive figure, representing the dead Frank.

It was a clever device to have Jack address much of his outpourings - party aimed inwards - to this dead brother figure. Some of this, the more audible bits, Wathen managed rather effectively, and even more important was the skill of Douglas in creating a totally neutral, passive figure, whose presence seemed somehow to provide reassurance, albeit enough to encourage brother Jack in his fruitless pursuit. The pair played off each other well, and there was a genuine brotherly feel created.

Amy Cameron, Frank's quite sophisticated 15-year-old daughter Doreen, vulnerable to a nasty piece of porn filmmaker's abuse ('How many blokes have you had, Doreen?' is one of the more unsettling lines), but pretty capable (when not gagged) at standing up for herself, was a nice piece of characterisation, as were the two parts (Margaret/Glenda) played in an aptly feisty way by Victoria Elliott.

Donald McBride managed a triple role, at least two of them sleazy, and appropriately meets not one but two sticky ends, projected from an upper window and suffocated by a cushion. It wasn't always clear, except to the initiated, which character he was at any time, but his speaking even as a creepy villain was up to RSC standards, which was certainly refreshing.

But the actor who most engaged my attention, the most inventive by a mile, was Michael Hodgson, who with a splendid variety of hunchbacked and stooping walks played Kinnear, one of the arch-gangsters, with a delicious laid-back manner and a sneery kind of semi-northern accent you couldn't make up if you tried to.

Unfazed to have a gun pointed at him, running dirty businesses as it were like a game of cards, Kinnear was a splendid creation - as sinister and threatening as Jack was the opposite. The walk itself was a revelation. It was a bit like having Richard III peer in on events. You felt a wiggle of his finger could mean a garrotting.

But the treat was that he doubled this with Con, a not so old (fifties) Irish gangster's hack given the task of roughing up the girl but constantly putting it off and almost relieved when Jack bursts in and prevents it. The county Kildare drawl, the dithery lurching around, the self-pitying mutterings ('When I lie awake at night I think of all the people I've murthered'. 'That's very civil of you', he comments when the tied-up Doreen volunteers to suck his cock instead of being maimed. It's pathetic but also oddly comic, and this and several lines, a good many of them from Hodgson, remind us how something we could have done with more of throughout this was comedy.

One other minor role proved a treat: Ed Gaughan voiced over by Sound Designer James Frewer as the nastiest piece of work, pure Krays, from south London - Gerald ('You have committed a Court-Martial offence'). Brilliant diction, but I wouldn't want to fall into his hands. To 26-03-16

Roderic Dunnett

24-03-16 

Contents page Belgrade Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre