I have a confession to make, gentle reader. Despite the fact that I went to that Oxford place and got a degree in English, I have never read A Tale of Two Cities. I’ve never seen the film of A Tale of Two Cities. I didn’t even know the story of A Tale of Two Cities. I knew the first line, and the names of the two cities involved, but that’s about it. I know, I’m shocked too. It’s therefore difficult for me to assess how true Mike Poulton’s adaptation is to the original – a quick read of Wikipedia’s “Two Cities” page suggests that a few characters and storylines have been removed but I can see how they could have got in the way of recounting the main story and that the conciseness is probably a good thing. What I can tell you, from my position of ignorance, is that it is a thrilling story that moves at a fast pace and it’s a production that gives you an amazing sense of sweeping, grand theatre on such a relatively small stage.
The play follows the fortunes of two men. One: Charles Darnay, born French aristocrat but renouncing the title in principled protest against the injustice of the society of his birth; a kind of eighteenth century continental Tony Benn I suppose. Two: Sydney Carton, a wastrel of a solicitor, who saves Darnay from the gallows, falls in unrequited love with Darnay’s beloved Lucie Manette, and in a surge of extraordinary altruism plans to get Darnay smuggled out of prison in Paris and takes his place at the guillotine. There’s a lot in between of course, but it’s a rough framework. I was staggered by the ending – I expected Carton to make some heroic last minute escape. That’s what happens when you’re 155 years behind everyone else in the book club.
Mike Britton’s fantastically adaptable set of peeling walls and wooden battens suggests equally convincingly the courtrooms, dingy pubs, elegant drawing rooms, streets and prisons of London and Paris, as walls and partitions slide open and close, revealing and concealing hidden onstage depths. The costumes are a splendid mix of the plush and the threadbare, suggesting the gulf not only between the French aristocracy and peasantry, but also a distinction between the likes of the Manettes and Carton. Rachel Portman (I’ve seen her Oscar) has composed the stirring and moving original music for this production, including a delicate overture at the beginning of the play, gently sung by cast members rather mysteriously wending their various ways behind a gauze screen. And James Dacre’s lucid direction concentrates on Dickens’ enigmatic characters and riveting story so that the evening passes far too quickly. It’s extremely impressive how the main professional cast and the Royal and Derngate Community Ensemble work side by side so that you can barely see the join. I loved the ribald London mockery of the ensemble during the early court scenes jeering at the protagonists from the balconies, a fine contrast with the grim-faced Parisian citizens who observe the Tribunal and take serious, considered notes with their quill pens (no doubt all their notes just read “guilty”). Using the ensemble gave the whole production an extra depth and a sense that a terrorising mob may never be more than a few feet away.
At the centre of the story is Sydney Carton, played with thoughtful gusto by Oliver Dimsdale. The play starts with Carton convincing the Old Bailey jury that Darnay is innocent, so he automatically becomes a “good man” as far as the audience is concerned. But he’s an incredibly complex character, not your usual Dickensian young hero, because of his drinking and challenging behaviour. Yet at the same time he is remarkably noble and almost Christ-like in the way he redeems himself by giving his own life so that the people he cares about can enjoy theirs. There’s only really one scene where Carton is depicted as a bad lot, and that’s when he takes Darnay to the pub and tries to goad him after downing too many glasses of fine Burgundy. I thought Mr Dimsdale gave a very good insight into a character that can never be at peace with himself, but at the same time I never really felt he was that much of a lowlife, and that he’d probably be quite a laugh down the pub. Maybe that says more about me than him. Certainly the final scene, when he does a far, far better thing than he has ever done, is totally superb, with the guillotine and the static mob slowly coming into focus as he approaches his doom with complete dignity and heroism.
The character of Darnay, however, is virtuous throughout, in his dignified appearances in court, in his honourable abandonment of his dreadful heritage, in his generous behaviour towards Carton, and in his devoted love for Lucie. Joshua Silver appears the very model of decency throughout and gives a strong convincing performance. I very much liked Christopher Good as Dr Manette, refined, sincere and wanting only the best for his daughter, struggling with the mental scars left by his eighteen years in prison, and visibly disgusted at how Defarge uses his old letter further to condemn Darnay. Yolanda Kettle is a very demure Lucie, yet strong in the face of adversity when Darnay returns to Paris and I reckon she could put up a tough fight when pushed.
Ignatius Anthony has a great stage presence in all his roles and I particularly liked his defiant Defarge and his languorous Attorney General. Mairead McKinley is a suitably vicious tricoteuse Mme Defarge (knitting provided courtesy of Lady Duncansby’s lady’s maid, the Belle of Great Billing), and a rather charmingly comic myopic Mrs Keating. Abigail McKern is fantastic as the faithful and spirited Miss Pross, with her brolly a force definitely to be reckoned with, and also as court witness Jenny Herring, tart with a heart of granite. Sean Murray gives great support in all his roles including as a delightfully devious Barsad. But for me the two stand-out performances of the night are by Michael Mears, both as the authoritarian but human solicitor Mr Stryker, and the good-hearted, selfless, brave banker (not often you see that phrase these days) Mr Lorry; and by Christopher Hunter in all his roles but particularly as the vile Marquis St Evrémonde, arrogantly taunting his nephew and treating everyone like dirt, and as the aggressive, demanding President of the Tribunal who masks his own personal sadism with the glorification of the Republic.
An engrossing story, richly told, with some great performances and all presented within an exciting, stimulating production. Definitely recommended!