Forty five chapters containing some of the best writing in English literature have been carefully and sensitively condensed into one of the finest touring productions this year.
The Royal & Derngate, Northampton, and Touring Consortium Theatre Company co-production of A Tale of Two Cities is a beautifully crafted theatrical experience, which manages to be visually stunning, audibly magnificent and dramatically enthralling, weaving the personal and the political into a breathtaking and exquisitely woven tapestry.
From the opening chorus proclamation of the infamous “best of times...worst of times” universal prologue there isn’t a dull moment in this classy, captivating, edge-of-the-seat production which demonstrates clearly and proficiently how quality theatre should be done.
This version of Charles Dickens’ epic story with a backdrop of the French Revolution and a socially deprived London was first produced in Northampton in 2014, to great critical and public acclaim. Now, that all-too-brief run has been turned into a national tour so that more have the chance to witness this stunning collaboration between director James Dacre, adaptor Mike Poulton and Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman.
Poulton has taken a no-nonsense approach to Dickens’ sprawling story of love, passion, betrayal, social despair, sacrifice and resurrection, managing to retain important themes without losing any essence of the author’s flowing narrative in just over two-and-a-half hours.
Dacre’s direction is confident, boldly giving the drama a fast pace without falling into the trap of garbled dialogue and galloping scenes that leave the audience baffled. He understands well the desire of Dickens to hold a mirror to the signs of the times, and conveys parallels with many eras including our own.
Portman’s music is ever-present but never overwhelming, providing an emotional soundtrack to both romance and revolution, while Mike Britton’s deceptively simple yet imposing set looks as though it was made for the Theatre Royal, with just a few shifts for it to become London courtroom, decadent French dwelling, or Parisian street where traitors meet their death at the guillotine.
Paul Keogan’s lighting design is perfect, focussing on characters and situations evocatively, and Ruth Hall’s rich costumes add to the period authenticity.
As if the thrilling production values aren’t high enough, the beyond excellent cast largely double up in a wide variety of roles, with the professionals boosted by local volunteers to provide extraordinary scenes and eye-catching tableaux of tumult and dramatic intensity.
Of the professional players there isn’t a weak link, though Joseph Timms gives an especially towering performance as the doomed Sydney Carton, a self-destructive alcoholic who finds in himself a selfless heroism. It is a memorable strong performance with colour and heart and his delivery of the final speech brings a tear to the eye. He is matched by a smooth and restrained Jacob Ifan as the strong-willed French aristocrat Charles Darnay.
Unmissable performances too from Patrick Romer, as the complex Dr Manette, a key character in the book whose strengths are so often played down but shown forcefully here; Shanaya Rafaat as the virtuous Lucie, loved by both Darnay and Carton; Noa Bodner as the powerful and bloodthirsty Madame Defarge; Sue Wallace as the formidable Pamela Keating and Miss Pross; and Michael Garner Sean Murray as the duplicitous Barsad.
This is a production that grasps the attention from the start and never weakens that grip, from the multilayered journey through dark and light to the heartbreaking conclusion. Clichéd though it might sound, this production is a triumph which can truly be described as the very best of times.
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