Did the critics have the best of times at A Tale of Two Cities?
Matthew Dunster's production of Dickens' classic is at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until 5 August
Holly Williams, WhatsOnStage
"It was set in olden times; it was set in modern times. That's the main conceit of Matthew Dunster's new stage adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities — but sadly, it fails to really become a potent tale for anyone's time. Dickens' story of how sacrifice and forgiveness eventually help break cycles of violence and vengeance, set during the French Revolution, becomes a long hard trudge here, not gaining much by being on stage – or by evoking present refugee camps and border control issues between France and England."
"There's just so much plot. It's hard to follow, and requires great lumps of leaden exposition... you just wonder if you're missing something."
"Fly Davis' set of stacked shipping containers on a revolve is really clever, although experienced technical difficulties on press night – when it works, it allows a slick moving between scenes and locations, and helps set up modern resonances."
"While they have a laudably diverse cast, I did wonder if the decision to cast a black man and a white man with absolutely zero physical resemble as Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton was more point-making than helpful: the plot rests on the fact that no-one can tell them apart (twice!)."
Michael Billington, The Guardian
"The problem is that Dickens' novel is far too complex to be reinterpreted as a simple protest against the manifold injustices of the modern migration crisis.
"This version, mixing modern and 18th-century costume, tries to have the best of both worlds by combining Dickens' narrative with images of the refugee camp at Sangatte: the result is a fearful muddle... The fact that Charles Darnay and his double, Sydney Carton, are played by actors of different colour may raise a few eyebrows, but makes an important statement. What matters is that the roles are well played by Jude Owusu and Nicholas Karimi."
"But, in attempting to treat Dickens as a modern polemicist, Dunster wilfully ignores George Orwell's point that "in every attack upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure".
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard
"Matthew Dunster's take on this story of sacrifice and injustice is ambitious, bringing a contemporary flavour to Dickens's portrait of revolutionary Paris and the comparative orderliness of London. It emphasises the hardships of poverty and the plight of refugees. But at times the insistence on topicality is crashingly unsubtle — a video sequence includes the now almost obligatory shot of Donald Trump — and the jagged dialogue makes the intricacies of the plot hard to follow."
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out
"Dunster would have surely been advised to trim it: there's so much going on that it's nigh on impossible to get emotionally caught up in the sketched-out adventures of unjustly jailed Frenchman Dr. Manette and his extended family. It's only in the last section, as bitter barrister Sydney Carton prepares himself to make the ultimate sacrifice for Manette's son-in-law Charles Darnay, that the narrative zooms in close enough to feel genuinely moving, and by then it's too late."
"And all this before you consider the muddled modern setting (confusingly many of the cast are in fact in period dress). It seemed like the least of the show's problems – though I don't think Dickens's parable about the dangers of social inequality needs much underscoring – but that plus the impressively diverse casting often made it feel like more energy had been expended on wokeness than storytelling."
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph
"This is A Tale of Two Egos. Matthew Dunster, playwright, and Timothy Sheader, director. "Let's do Dickens", they go. "Let's do a Dickens for the 21st century. "A Tale of Two Cities" – that's relevant, isn't it? French Revolution, rich trampling on the poor, the poor rising up, haves versus have-nots, the cruelly dispossessed seeking sanctuary, best of times, worst of times, let's make it a Play for Today."
"OK, so I'm putting simplistic words in their mouths. But given the lorry-load of lumpen chat they've tipped into Dickens' Channel-hopping 1859 classic – jettisoning most traces of his prose, and its attendant lyrical beauty, as they collide the 18th-century action with modern trappings – I don't feel that guilty."
Tim Bano, The Stage
"Matthew Dunster's adaptation is as far from subtle as it gets. Two tiny television screens flicker with images of (surprise, surprise) Donald Trump and Theresa May. Fly Davis' set consists of three shipping containers, and the opening scene is set between Dover and Calais. A rich monseigneur even has a golden toilet, while the characters wear a mix of modern and period costumes. Dunster clearly doesn't trust the audience to draw its own parallels between then and now."
"The characters speak in dialogue that is devoid of rhythm to the extent that, most of the time, it's difficult to know what's going on. It clings to a kind of arch, Dickensian vernacular that makes the plot completely unfathomable for those who don't know the book and kills the pace dead at any given opportunity."
A Tale of Two Cities runs at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until 5 August