This exciting new stage adaptation hurtles through Dickens' 1859 masterpiece in little more than two hours.
Set towards the end of the 18th century in both London and Paris, it opens with a gripping courtroom scene in which the French aristocratic emigre Charles Darnay is falsely accused in an English court of spying for the mutinous American colonies.
Only the last minute intervention of the sharp-thinking barrister Sydney Carton saves him from a miscarriage of justice.
Thereafter the fates of these two men, and the woman they both love, become increasingly entangled as the bloody chaos of the revolution unfolding in France reaches its height.
Relations between London and Paris were tense to put it mildly. Londoners were worried about what was happening to their money. No change there then. As you know full well, however, this tale is not about the full English Brexit but the altogether bloodier business of the French Revolution. These days the bloodshed goes on largely but not entirely in other parts of the world. As a consequence, mind you, there are still refugees trying to get from Calais to Dover. Be they the best of times or the worst of times, the times don’t change quite as much as we think.
The events portrayed here happened seventy years before Dickens wrote the book. Apparently he described it as “the best story I have ever written”. Yet all most of can remember about it are the opening lines and the closing lines when, shortly before putting his head on the block, Sydney Carton proclaims: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”
Putting Dickens’s long and complex tales on stage is never easy. But then the Criterion never fights shy of a challenge. Under Jane Railton’s direction, a large cast brought order out of what could easily have been chaos on the opening night. Sean Glock captured the complexity of Carton’s dissolute self-loathing. Yes, he drinks a fair drop but his slurring is curtailed enough for us still to hear exactly what he’s saying. As for his French look-alike, whom he twice saves from execution, Pete Meredith overlays Charles Darnay’s self-conscious worthiness with a telling whiff of priggishness.
A bewigged and be-whiskered Keith Railton plays, at different times, a resonantly declaiming Dickens, a ghastly French aristocrat and a judicial “citizen” revolutionary condemning Darnay and many another to death.
Lisa Franklin is lumbered with the role of Lucie Manette, one of those one-dimensional idealised women that Dickens portrayed with such sentimentality. How much more fun to play Madame Defarge, la tricoteuse terrible. Cathryn Bowler doesn’t disappoint with a portrayal of vicious vindictiveness. Even when she’s knitting, she gives the impression that she’d like to jab a needle into the jugular under the neck that is about to be severed.
Under Pete Kendall’s management, the backstage crew provide a suitably sinister lighting for the guillotine scenes and manage to get an explosion to go off at the right time. And talking of time, it was as far better thing to remind ourselves what happens between the opening and the closing lines by watching a stage production than ploughing through three hundred and eighty four pages. Again.
*A Tale of Two Cities is at the Criterion until Saturday October 22.
A Tale of Two Cities, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, until Saturday (Oct 22). Running time 3 hours.
There are only three performances left but theatre lovers might still be able to get the last few seats for this imaginative adaptation of Charles Dickens' best selling novel.
Director Jane Railton seemingly has a cast of thousands crammed onto the Criterion's stage, but every one of the actual 25 amateur actors knew exactly where they should be standing and what they should be doing.
In fact the crowd scenes are the most atmospheric throughout this three hour production with only one break.
But what a story to tell as Sean Glock luxuriates in the role of dissolute Sydney Carton, the perfect foil for Pete Meredith, who surely had a rod up his back as the ever-honourable Charles Darnay.
The court scenes are terrific, as are the glorious vignettes in between by the likes of Cathryn Bowler (the perfect Madame Defarge), Lisa Franklin (Lucie), Neil Vallance (Dr Manette) and, as ever, Keith Railton as both narrator and evil aristocrat.
But it is the full ensemble and the way they jeered, moved, knitted and gossiped who convey the true spirit of these best of times and worst of times,and which are definitely worth the price of a ticket.