Writer: Ted Lewis
Adaptor: Torben Betts
Director : Lorne Campbell
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Newcastle Noir is now a well-established crime writing festival. Back in the early 1970’s the term was applied to the iconic film starring Michael Caine in a pulp fiction classic set in post-industrial Tyneside. Jimmy Nail meets Claude Chabrol in a Sarah Lund jumper… Sort of.
This production, at Salford’s Lowry theatre, is a sort of homecoming as well, as author Ted Lewis was born in Manchester although his novel, Jack’s Return Home, was set in Scunthorpe. Mike Hodge’s 1971 film transferred the location to Newcastle, and Torben Bett’s stage adaptation retains this backdrop. The spectacular set (Leo Warner) uses a monstrous pile of red bricks to suggest the disintegration of the built environment, the demolition of a community and its sense of its values. Tyneside is also evoked in the actor’s accents, and the 1960’s music soundtrack, featuring mash-ups of Eric Burdon and the Animals back catalogue. Other period detail, especially through costume, is superb.
Anti-hero enforcer Jack Carter is also on a homecoming visit: Returning to his native Newcastle to avenge his estranged brother’s death, and to distance himself from a London gangland which is turning against him. He pursues his revengers tragedy in a city on its knees economically, plagued by violence, unemployment, cronyism and crime. In this brutal dystopia Carter trawls through the corrupt businessmen, pimps and drug dealers, gamblers and hoodlums towards a final retribution. In the process he has to seek reconciliation with his own past, his damaged family relationships, and especially the lost link to boyhood ideals once shared with his brother.
This link is achieved ingeniously. The silent spirit of the recently deceased Frank shadows Jack’s encounters with the denizens of the Geordie underworld, and provides a foil for Jack’s inner monologues and self-examinations. Periodically Frank also adds jazz percussion to Jack’s frequent rants courtesy of a drum kit at the side of the stage. If that description suggests Banquo on bongos, that does little justice to the effectiveness of the device.
The character of Jack Carter himself is central to everything in this play, and Kevin Wathen is mesmerising as the Geordie hard man on a mission. Sometimes strident, but always compelling attention. Michael Hodgson produces a reptilian performance as Cyril Kinnear; he also manages to turn the torturer, Con, into a disturbing comic creation, while retaining his terrifying brutality – even if his Kildare accent was not always well anchored. Victoria Elliott also givescredible performances as both the sultry schemer Glenda, and Margaret, the tart with a heart.
These performances were not upstaged, either by several tons of brick, or the clever use of sound and lighting effects. Shadows and silhouettes underpin the threatening atmosphere of this play. Lighting from side of stage creates starkness, spotlights focus the attention, mists float across the stage in ghostly forms, projections bring distant threats and joys to haunt Jack. This is less “Newcastle Noir” than “Geordie chiaroscuro”.
If there’s a scene which works less convincingly, it’s the one in Glenda’s flat, overlooking the brutal revitaiisation of the city by T. Dan Smith and John Poulson. The balcony scene takes place half-way up a small mountain of red bricks, and challenges the most willing imagination. The same scene includes a three-way conversation between Carter, Glenda, and corrupt businessman Cliff Brumby which could have been pasted from either the Marx Brothers or an Abbott and Costello routine. Comic relief may have its place in serious drama, but this placement is misjudged, relieving the tension at an inappropriate moment. Instead of adding additional shock value to the subsequent defenestration of Brumby, it gives it a cartoon quality.
Overall, this was a compelling drama, whose pace never flags, and where the atmosphere of menace and uncertainty keeps the tension relentlessly tight from start to finish.
Runs until Saturday 23 April 2016. | Photo:Topher McGrillis