Review: A Tale of Two Cities (Royal & Derngate, Northampton)

Mike Poulton’s adaptation of the Dickens’ classic gets a welcome revival

More than two years ago, Northampton’s artistic director James Dacre delivered a five-star version of Dickens’s classic tale of revolutionary France, courtesy of a sparkling Mike Poulton script adaptation, a sumptuous Rachel Portman score, some stunning Mike Britton designs and a cast of (seemingly) thousands.

Such was the success of this limited run that the theatre has revived it now, playing in the appropriately Victorian environs of the bijou Royal Theatre before embarking on a national tour. And this incarnation is every bit as gripping, moving and exhilarating as its predecessor, retaining all the panache and sweep of Dacre’s swaggering direction and coupling it with a diligent, accomplished team of professional and community actors.

From the iconic opening lines, delivered as a kind of chorus before segueing seamlessly into a thoroughly dramatic courtroom scene, the show takes hold of its audience and never lets go. The pace is relentless, the lines spoken rapidly but always intelligibly, and the story rattles terrifyingly on, like a three-wheeled carriage spinning dangerously down a steep hill.

And yet there is never a sense of this vehicle being out of control. Every Dickensian plot moment is meticulously staged, every character carefully drawn, so that the speed of the narrative serves only to add to its intensity, ploughing inevitably on to its equally iconic, heartbreaking conclusion.

The cast doubling has been extended and adapted further in this production, and it’s all the better for it. Professionals and amateurs alike portray the mob of Paris and the gentility of London with equal authenticity, and Dacre makes fabulous use of Ruth Hall’s costumes and Paul Keogan’s lighting to paint beautiful images as a backdrop to the action. Britton’s decaying decadence captures the mood perfectly, and the evocation is completed by Portman’s haunting, well-judged underscore.

Jacob Ifan steps into the shoes of doomed French aristocrat Charles Darnay with smooth aplomb opposite a delicate, whimsical Shanaya Rafaat as Lucie Manette. Among the sizeable supporting cast there are plenty of fine cameos peopling a world of detailed, believable characters.

At the heart of the whole thing is a towering performance from Joseph Timms as the dissolute, self-destructive Sydney Carton. Timms reveals real heart as the drunkard who battles his demons in the search for something good in himself, and he’s captivating to watch.

Judiciously filleted into a rollicking 150 minutes or so, this epic of literature gets a welcome revival at the hands of Dacre and his team, and a well-deserved exposure to a wider audience.

A Tale of Two Cities runs at Royal & Derngate, Northampton until 17 September before touring to Oxford, Richmond, Bradford, Blackpool, Wolverhampton, Brighton, Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Nottingham Theatre Royal.