Friday, 30 September 2016

A Tale of Two Cities

This adaptation of Dickens’ classic highlights how the novelist’s writing is as flawless on stage as it is on the page

Written by Georgina Brown

Charles Dickens may be best known as a novelist, but he was a true man of the theatre. He considered life on the boards before writing seized his imagination. There’s an implicit theatricality in the structure of many of his novels: he thinks in scenes, he writes dialogue as real people speak it, his characters, such as the snarling tricoteuse Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, encoding the names of people she wanted brought down in her knitting, make an effortless leap from page to stage. Georgina-Brown-colour-176

As does the plot of this 1859 masterpiece. A spy thriller, a love triangle, a court-room drama, a tale of revolution and redemption in one selfless act of heroism, built on symmetries and opposites, (famously ‘the best of times and the worst of times’) and in two cities – it’s got everything going for it. Ditto Mike Poulton’s expertly filleted adaptation, wonderfully clear even to those encountering the story for the first time. Director James Dacre’s pacy staging makes it edge-of- your-seat stuff, its tension powerfully underscored by the throbbing double-bass in Rachel Portman’s atmospheric music.

Poulton starts the play in the London courtroom where a French aristocrat, Charles Darnay, accused of spying, is being tried. One would not immediately confuse Jacob Ifan’s unruffled, unreadable Darnay with Joseph Timms’s quick-witted, ruffled, outspoken Sydney Carton, his defence lawyer, until Carton raises it as a possibility. It saves Darnay’s head this time round, and prefigures the plot’s final brilliant twist.

In a crucial moment, Carton scrutinises his face in a platter, and sees a reflection of decent Darnay, who is loved by Lucie, the woman he himself adores, and he hates Darnay for being a better version of himself. Joseph Timms’s charismatic carton is outstanding as the emotionally overflowing character, burning with self-hatred for his dissipation and drunkenness. Next to him, Ifan’s Darnay is a bit plain vanilla, which is just as it should be in a play artfully filled with sharp contrasts, darkness and light, despair and hope.

Dacre makes use of every inch of the stage, jamming the angry mob and jury – nicely played by local amateur actors – into the circle boxes and a gallery at the back of the stage. It looks superb with flaking interior walls of faded apricots and duck-egg blues, explosive riots in paris streets opening up into a Gainsboroughesque pastoral landscape. At the end, the guillotine is silhouetted against a bloody sky. Immensely satisfying.

Until 1 October at Richmond Theatre, London TW9: 0844-871 7651, richmond-theatre/   
Then on tour until 26 November. For venues: www.touring

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