Writer: Terence Rattigan, John Gielgud, Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Director: Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Dickens, Gielgud and Rattigan. Or perhaps Rattigan, Gielgud and Dickens, then. Whatever way you mix it up it’s a potent blend of some of the finest literary and theatrical talents Britain has ever produced. The combination of names alone makes it surprising that the script has never been professionally performed on stage before now, and the quality of the work makes it just shocking. Adam Spreadbury-Maher has cut Rattigan and Gielgud’s adaptation from a three and a half hour, 40 actor version to a tight two and a half, eight actor play that would be an absolute delight if it weren’t so very heartbreaking.
Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is set between Paris and London in the run up to the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. The editing process from the book to the original play stripped out some story elements, and Spreadbury-Maher has edited further still meaning that this is a version that may not appeal to massive fans of the book, even though it should, as it skips over a lot of the political heft and social commentary of the novel. There is still a lot in there, however it’s cut down to focus on the relationships between the main characters of Charles Darnay, Lucie Manette and Sydney Carton.
Briefly so, Lucie and Darnay meet and fall in love on the boat from France to England. On the boat, Charles is arrested and imprisoned for treason only to be represented at trial by the barrister Sydney Carton. By the time the trial comes around, Darnay and Lucie are in love and by the end of it Carton loves her too. Darnay’s secret is that he is the heir to one of the most hated names in the french aristocracy, so when his hateful uncle the Marquis St. Evrémonde is killed the name passes to him and the danger that being a member of the aristocracy in those years held also passed to him.
This is a hugely cut down version of the book, but in the small room of the King’s Head theatre it still feels huge. The story is just massive and this cast of eight handle it fantastically well. At times there is a palpable fear and tension for the characters when they are in danger, there is almost a an audible pity for Carton as we watch him torture himself over his love for Lucie. Playing 30 characters between them, the cast shift seamlessly from one scene to the next not letting the pace fall for a moment as they drive towards the most noble and most unhappy famous ending to the story of Sydney Carton’s love.
Stewart Agnew, playing the rôle Gielgud set aside for himself, as Carton and the Marquis is making a tremendous professional debut as the complex, doomed Carton and the brutal, camp and utterly hateful Marquis. The play hinges on these two characters and Agnew proves a more than capable pivot for the weighty drama, flipping between hero and villain like emerging through a mirage of himself. The rest of the cast also perform superbly with John Hodgkinson’s mentally precarious Dr. Manette and all of Shelly Lang’s characters two other notable highlights.
There are a few jolts where the action doesn’t really seem to fit in with the story. Though it is clearly set in the 18th century there is sometimes a feeling, possibly brought on by the costume and soundtrack choices that jar anachronistically. The overall quality of the production makes up for these though and there cannot be many far, far better things playing in this city right now.