In an England in the grip of Brexit, hard or otherwise, Charles Dickens’ marvellous A Tale Of Two Cities is startlingly relevant. Mike Poulton’s thrilling adaptation of Dickens’ book for the theatre is wonderful in every sense and James Dacre has assembled a first rate cast for the UK tour. Everything looks and sounds quite magnificent, and the drama, intense, raw and personal, is spell-binding. Better than anything currently playing in the West End, this production really is the best of times.
Mike Poulton is really on a roll. After his award winning theatrical adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, he produced the sublime Kenny Morgan, an original work more Rattigan than Rattigan in some ways, which is now enjoying a return season at the Arcola Theatre. Currently touring the UK is James Dacre’s production of Poulton’s A Tale Of Two Cities, which Poulton wrote for Dacre’s first season as Artistic Director of Royal & Derngate Northampton.
In every sense, this is a triumph for Poulton. One of the great features of his adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novels was his ability to pare back the many strands of the novels and to reveal the essence of Mantel’s style and approach. Watching his plays, it was possible to experience (nearly) the reader’s journey with the novels. With Kenny Morgan, his sense of Rattigan’s style was uncanny.
It is the same with A Tale Of Two Cities; Poulton captures the essence of Dickens’ great facility for intricate characterisation and sweeping, intriguing and complex narratives in a series of relatively short, but progressively urgent and potent scenes. Great swathes of Dickens prose and characters are cut – but what remains is more than enough to provide a gripping rollercoaster ride of romance and adventure.
The dialogue is modern in style but Dickensian in composition. There are no serious anachronisms but there is no sense of stuffy olde-worlde jargon either. Characters quip and quibble, articulate and obfuscate in language which is easily understood, accessible and often outright funny. It’s the same sort of rigour and detail which made the BBC adaptation of Bleak House so successful.
Dacre ensures that Poulton’s work is seen in the best possible light. Everything about the staging is meticulously thought through. The hint is in the title: Dickens’ work features two great characters that don’t speak – London and Paris – and the narrative indicates that for all their differences, at essence there is much in common. This notion is neatly underlined by Mike Britton’s imposing and very grand set: huge, impressive and oppressive places are used to represent both cities at once. There may be different furnishings and costumes, but the basic set-up is the same.
The trial which commences the play occurs in a space very similar to the space in which the trials which lead to the tragic conclusion of the play occur. Fine, stately homes have similar appearances. The duality is convenient but also reflective of the points Dickens makes about what separates the two countries and what might actually bind them.
Ruth Hall’s costumes are colourful and highly detailed, providing a rich texture to proceedings while still ensuring that the English are English and the French, French. Paul Keogan lights the spaces, big and small, with dexterous skill; much occurs in shadows but is still clearly visible.
Darkness might actually be a cast member, so skillfully is it employed. The key scenes in the jail near the end of the play are lit so well that one can almost hear the rats scurrying and smell the urine of sequestered prisoners. All aspects of the physical production, including the dreadful work of Madame Guillotine, are expertly judged and seamlessly delivered.
Happily, the acting matches the standard of text and production. It would be easy for this tale of a love triangle that stretches across two countries, involves three trials and betrayals, revenges and heroic manoeuvrings to become a cesspit for overacting and camp insincerity but Dacre ensures that the cast, many of whom play multiple characters, stick to faithful performances and create believable and memorable characters.
As the dissolute and drunken Sydney Carton, Joseph Timms is quite outstanding. Carton is a difficult character to warm to as he is an unashamed drunk and he falls for another man’s bride. Timms wastes no time seeking the sympathy of the audience; he plays a longer, cleverer game. In the opening scenes, he establishes several things clearly: Carton is bright and quick, he is always paying attention even when he looks like he is distracted; justice matters to him, as much as the next jug of wine; he bears an uncanny resemblance to his client, Charles Darnay; he has a good heart which beats with real emotion.
Having established all that, Timms is free to canter through the text, having fun as a drunken sot and feeling sorry for himself in the matter of the affections of Lucie Manette, Darnay’s betrothed and then wife. Later, when it is time for Carton to step up to the plate, Timms brings all of the aspects of his character together and his ingenious and desperate scheme plays out with assuredness. It is because he has established Carton’s cavalier attitude to life that his final sacrifice seems plausible.
Then, from nowhere, Timms brings solace and care to a fellow prisoner, a young girl, who is about to lose her head. It’s a truly touching and delicate scene, and the communion between the two damaged and dammed souls is profoundly sad, delicately heroic. His Carton may have sacrificed himself for Lucie, but his care of this unknown girl ensures his place as a hero in the eyes of the audience. Which allows Timms to deliver a shattering and quite faultless rendition of Catron’s famous “far far better thing” speech. It is impossible not to be moved by this beautifully spoken and intelligently calibrated performance.
Jacob Ifan’s Darnay is immaculately handsome, restrained and composed. He is a hero’s hero, silent and resigned. With great care, Ifan creates a character which is the exact opposite of Timms’ Carton. His love for Lucie is never in doubt, and his stoic acceptance of the various unfair calamities life forces upon him makes him who he is. The restraint Ifan brings to the role is impressive – and exactly right. Shanaya Rafaat is also exactly right as Lucie, a permanent rose in everyone’s life. Rafaat is beautiful and easily conveys Lucie’s fears and dedication.
Noa Bodner has tremendous fun with the savage revenge taker, the knitting Madame Defarge. She makes snarling an art form. Her marvellous showdown with Sue Wallace’s very English Miss Pross is a true highlight of the evening, with Wallace bringing the house down with ease. Harry Attwell makes for a scary Defrage, and also acquits himself very well as the wily barrister Stryver.
There is excellent work from Michael Garner as Lorry, Jonathan Dryden Taylor as Jerry, Sean Murray as the duplicitous Barsad and John Tarcy who is a very swashbuckling prosecutor, among other things. Tarcy has an excellent voice and knows how to use it effectively, which makes his performance stand out. As Dr Manette, Patrick Romer is in good form, although occasionally less could be more.
Christopher Hunter has a tremendous time, playing three very different but imperious types. A Judge, a Marquis and a President – each is unique and startlingly different from the others, a real testament to Hunter’s skills.
Rachel Portman has composed original music for the production and it is excellent, filmic in nature and sweeping and evocative. Michael Cryne and The Edmundian Players play the score live and to really tremendous effect. There are some songs too, of varying success – sadly, when songs occur it is hard to not think of Les Miserables and that does not assist.
But that is a small matter and it does not, at all, get in the way of the complete engagement Dacre’s production induces. If you know A Tale Of Two Cities you will enjoy this version immensely as it rises absolutely to the challenge; if you don’t know it, you will think it is one of the best stories you have ever witnessed unfold on stage.