FringeReview UK 2016
Mike Poulton adapts, James Dacre directs, both with panache. The design’s from a deceptively simple base by Mike Britton. Paul Keogan’s lighting launches tableaux worthy of revolutionary painter David. Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Touring Consortium who brought a superb adaptation of Of Mice and Men in April, have brought what might well prove the novelisation of the season with A Tale of Two Cities.
It’s a mouthful, but memorable for quality. Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Touring Consortium who brought a superb adaptation of Of Mice and Men in April, have brought what might well prove the novelisation of the season with A Tale of Two Cities. With Mike Poulton as consummate adaptor – his Rattigan hommage Kenny Morgan has just returned for a second run at the Arcola though he’s famous for versions like Tale – you know the script at least will snap. Directed by James Dacre, it does, with such panache that ninety minutes in the first half blink past. The design – from a deceptively simple base by Mike Britton – is extraordinarily effective. Paul Keogan’s lighting has something to do with this: we’re launched into tableaux worthy of revolutionary painter David.
Each scene features something unique, huge sash windows, a table whose feature pushes up an escritoire, soft screens with a cappella presets, various period painted backdrops and most remarkable, a massive statue base of a horseman glimpsed in a virulent crowd scene just at the end of the first half. To launch this for a matter of seconds before the curtain comes down shows some style. How not to make the opening after the interval anti-climactic? A simple fire up centre. Britton’s designs are breathtaking, but unlike some recent adaptations don’t steal the show because they underscore and clarify the narrative, and don’t stand in for it.
It’s 1790 and Charles Darnay French aristocrat is on trial for his life for spying in London, rescued by the second lawyer Sydney Carton whose uncanny resemblance to Darnay puts witness identification to confused flight. Carton however is much more complex, self-destructive and interesting than innocent, upright Darnay, who even if he loves the same woman is prepared to go into all sorts of moral contortions to guilt-trip then un-guilt-trip this paragon, Lucie. The odyssey to Carton’s preparing to use his resemblance in the service of the rather upright Darnay yet again (and for Lucie’s sake) end in perhaps the most famous conclusion of all Dickens. The equally memorable beginning is shot around the ensemble, which includes a dozen locally-recruited players for each leg of the tour – a welcoming touch.
The bedrock of this astonishingly swift-paced narrative with its complex scenes dissolving strikingly into each other, is the script. Poulton compresses all the key moments of the narrative into this play, but more, he finds room enough to tell the space in breathing pathos of the anti-hero, Carton. Carton’s almost bi-polar swings between dissipation and wired Pimpernel-like dispatch is electrifying. And in fiction Carton predates Pimpernel. Joseph Timms stands out even in this flawless company as commanding, quixotic, febrile, despairing, self-pitying and ringingly noble where it matters. His quivering energy brings Carton’s strange conception alive in a way that you can never believe in any other.
There’s fine work too from Shanaya Rafat who makes the rather two-dimensioned Lucie breathe a believable warmth and desperation. Patrick Romer playing her father Dr Manette brings gravitas and suffering surmounted to his role, and Sue Wallace, mainly as Mrs Pross the most cheerfully gratifying character here, elicits a well-deserved cheer for her star turn. Noa Bodner her would-be-nemesis the evil Madame Dafarge relishes her sexy devilry, and Jonathan Dryden Taylor brings a sturdy power to his roles.
Sean Murray’s weasel Barsad insidiously slithers across the evening, counterpointed by Michael Garner’s anxiously steadfast Lorry – perhaps the only hero-banker role known to us. Christopher Hunter’s many roles are capped by his gravelly viciousness as Darnay’s uncle; one almost regrets his passing out of the narrative – surely there was so much more evil he might try to inflict on stray children and nephews. Jacob Ifan as Darnay himself strides more confidently into his role as he progresses and his second trial scene nails Darnay’s moral and personal courage. Of this superb cast of fourteen and without knowing the story, you’d not predict which character kills the other.
E M. Forster talked of Dickens’ supremacy in creating ‘half-round’ characters. These are a gift for theatrical adaptations, first of whom of course is Dickens himself, whose love of theatre means his novels almost beg for the stage. Poulton, Britton, and Dacre know exactly where to leave this story: with Dickens himself. Their job is to bring it to life, straight, with memorable scenes and thrilling settings-up for the next, like turning over chairs that in a trice become a vandalised house in another country.
This is an outstanding production, with the central character given an outstanding performance by Joseph Timms. He’s supported by a near-faultless cast, and no weak links with a whiplash direction against the best of backdrops, even for the worst of times.