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A TALE OF TWO CITIES Royal & Derngate, Northampton


With an elegance which bodes well for James Dacre’s captaincy of  this lovely theatre,  its filmhouse programmed  The Invisible Woman  just as Dacre opened this masterly version  of a novel Dickens wrote during his affair with the woman on whom he may have based its Lucie Manette.  Nice co-ordination, and a chance to reflect on the personal confusions which prevent Dickens from ever giving any of his young women the ripe strong character he bestows on men, and on ladies too old to trouble his desires.

But thrilling to the book at ten years old,  I knew that the real female role was Madame Defarge:  knitting under the guillotine, drunk on death, snarling  “Old debts must be paid”.  With glancing but unmistakeable significance,  Mairead McKinley plays her Irish.  I also knew that my hero was not the stiff idealistic Charles Darnay but his double: ramshackle, boozy self-hating Sydney Carton.  Not just because of his final act,  but because for all the romance and danger the story stands or falls with this  “disappointed drudge…dissolute, cold, reckless”.  Here, played by the magnetic Oliver Dimsdale against Joshua Silver’s buttoned-up Darnay ,  Carton not only stands but strides.

The two men are convincingly near-doubles:  clear handsome features, black brows, one ruffled and one smooth.  Indeed despite much doubling all the casting is sharp: Christopher Hunter disdainfully OTT as the old Marquis, Sean Murray wonderfully seedy as Barsad,  Ignatius Anthony an unusually rounded Defarge, and Michael Mears unexpectedly moving as Mr Lorry the anxious, benign banker.   Dacre’s direction is vigorous,   integrated with a lovely score by Rachel Portman: the community cast make a  flaming, murderous Paris mob and Mike Britton’s set frames the action in leprous ancient walls, as if ghosts from the “best of times, worst of times” were haunting them,remembering.   Once the calm backcloth of London’s rural edges parts suddenly to show the Paris gallows. And the first and last sight of the guillotine is memorable.

So, wonderful theatre: and worth saying how much we owe to Mike Poulton’s skill as adaptor.   Once again (as with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, not to mention Morte d’Arthur)  he refines dense fiction into clear drama; he knows which lines and moments must be preserved intact, while firmly nudging others into cleaner dramatic shape.  So he omits the flashback dissolution of old Manette,  but makes space for sudden quietnesses:  Lorry  remembering childhood,  a dreamlike wedding song,  and Carton telling Lucie “I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul”.   Time passes smooth and neatly, without undue exposition but always with clarity.

And by pointing up the politics, the fantaticism, the ambiguous loyalties and the benign blackmail of Barsad, he made me notice for the first time that in this novel at least Dickens is a direct ancestor of John le Carré.  Darnay’s London trial as a spy, tense beneath the clerk Carton’s dry ironic gaze,  is contrasted with the ranting brutality of the Paris tribunal.  Which evokes, even better than the novel,  the way that fanatical revolutions blend street savagery with jargon-heavy legalistic bureaucracy.    “It is forbidden to weep for an enemy of the people” snarls Madame Defarge.  There are countries where it still is.

box office  01604 624811 to 15  March

rating;  five5 Meece Rating


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