01 May 2012

A Tale of Two Cities - Charing Cross Theatre, Monday 30th April 2012

Seamstress - Rachel Wicking
Sydney Carton - Michael Howe
Jarvis Lorry - David Alder
Lucie Manette - Jennifer Hepburn
Miss Pross - Pippa Winslow
Defarge - Craig Berry
Madame Defarge - Jemma Alexander
Dr. Manette - John Fleming
Charles Darnay - Jonathan Ansell
Barsad - Mark Slowey
Stryver - Miles Eagling

Creative Team:
From the novel by Charles Dickens
Director: Paul Nicholas
Musical Director - Philip Shute
Lighting - Howard Hudson
Costumes - Suzi Lombardelli
Sets - Charlie Camm

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" is probably one of the most famous opening lines in literature (in fact, famous first lines are pretty uncommon and I had a go at coming up with some others and didn’t do spectacularly well. All I could come up with were the following:

Call me Ishmael..
Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again..
Marley was dead, to begin with..
Two houses, each alike in dignity..
To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I recall that I was born…
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God
(I’m not sure that “Once upon a time” really counts)

Answers below, and see if you can come up with some of your own). Anyway, A Tale of Two Cities is my favourite book by Dickens and as with all personal favourites, people get very protective about them. So it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I went along last night to the Charing Cross Theatre to see this new musical version of one of my favourite classics. Many moons ago, I saw a straight play version at Greenwich Theatre which  was truly awful and I wasn’t expecting last night’s offering to be any better, particularly when I found out that for some reason this production has been more or less ignored by other reviewers. A deafening silence usually means that a production is so dire that the majority of people think it kinder not to voice their opinion. When I realised that the auditorium was considerably less than half full, my heart sunk towards my shoes and I braced myself for the worst. After seeing the show, however, I would be quite happy to walk up and down the Embankment banging a gong and directing people towards the box office. Sure, there are things that I didn’t like about the production, and things I would like to have seen done differently, but on the whole this is a well-crafted, solid little production with some good people in lead roles, a range of excellent supporting performances and a refreshing simplicity in the way it tackles an incredibly complicated story. It certainly deserves a bigger audience than it currently seems to be getting.

Presenting this story, with its vast sweep, on a very small stage was always going to be a challenge, but in retrospect the space limitations merely seem to focus attention on the domesticity of this story and how huge historical events affect a small group of individuals caught up within them. If the venue had been larger and the cast more numerous, I would have liked to have seen some evidence of the “bigger picture” – what this musical cries out for is a couple of big “set pieces” in order to throw the smaller stories into sharper relief. For instance, the finale of Act I screams out for a bigger staging, as do the courtroom scenes of Act II. In the very final scene, the story really does need a multitude of revolutionary peasants baying for aristocratic blood and waving pitchforks, and the audience are desperate for the shadow of Madame Guillotine to loom across the stage. Failing that, we need at least a roll of drums and the sound of the blade falling, rather than just a blackout. (although the occasional train rumbling into Charing Cross overhead really does begin to sound like the roll of the tumbrels if you apply a little imagination). Certainly a larger production would benefit from a small orchestra rather than being played on two grand pianos crammed onto the stage – but this lack certainly doesn’t distract from the production as a whole. Given the small size of the show, two pianos actually do quite a good job.

There are some incredibly good performances going on here. Michael Howe is terrific as the disillusioned Sydney Carlton, managing to portray the quiet agonies of unrequited love in a dignified and sensitive performance, andhe is superbly matched by Jennifer Hepburn as Lucie Manette, who takes a rather naff “romantic heroine” role and makes a believable and three-dimensional woman out of it. She has a lovely light soprano voice and gentlemen who appreciate a fine d├ęcolletage have much to be thankful for. They are very ably supported by Pippa Winslow in the somewhat thankless part of Miss Pross (please, Wardrobe Department, find her a nicer dress to wear) and David Alder as the spinsterish and fussy banker Mr. Lorry – fine and restrained performances both, with a good eye as to the comic possibilities of both roles without resorting to lazy mugging. In fact, they share a very touching scene in Act 2 which could have been somewhat mawkish in the wrong hands, but both handle this with aplomb and a certain dignity, circling each other like a pair of offended herons. This contrasts with the well-judged OTT stage villainy of Mark Slowey’s Barsad, and a nicely shaded portrayal of Stryver the junior barrister by Miles Eagling. Jemma Alexander as Madame Defarge stalks the stage like one of the vengeful Furies of Greek tragedy although seems to have a somewhat smaller voice than the role seems to demand. She is also somewhat hampered by one of the shows poor wig choices, of which there are several. This particular wig seems an odd combination of over-elaboration and, ironically, poor execution. Worst Wig Award goes to Jonathan Ansell’s Charles Darnay, who seems to have one of the Bastille’s rats perched jauntily on his head.

Unfortunately Mr. Ansell is the weak link in this particular chain. Granted that the role does not give him much scope, he comes off a very poor second to Howe’s robust Carton, and one wonders why Lucie Manette prefers Darnay. I find Mr. Ansell’s top notes more than slightly shrill, and there is much to be learned by him in the way of acting. Particularly embarrassing are his several attempts at doing “being bundled off the stage” – he seems to be offering absolutely no resistance to his attackers and in fact seems all too keen to be assisting them drag him in the general direction of “off stage”.

There is some clever, understated direction by Paul Nicholas – particularly of the “Sunday invitations to tea” section - and lighting is atmospheric and generally very well handled. I could find no credit in the programme for the programme design itself, which is not great. The cover shows a skyline of London with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (neither started until 1840 and therefore completely anachronistic with the French Revolution) and what I assume to be the Bastille, serving as a backdrop to the rear view of the torso of a reclining and scantily clad female figure. Surely an image of the guillotine or Liberty Leading the People would have been more appropriate and evocative? Or a knitted French Tricolour, accompanied by a skein of wool with knitting needles stuck through it? Or simply the novel’s famous opening lines in a suitably period font? I also have some issues with the use of the Christmas carol O Come All Ye Faithful in the production: although the music was indeed written in the early 1740s, the words as we know them today date from 1841 and are therefore as anachronistic as the picture of Big Ben on the programme cover. To any accusations of nit-picking I do have to plead guilty as charged.

These are minor carps about an evening which was very enjoyable, and considerably better than I had anticipated. A big thank you to the cast and creative team for an evening which turned out to be “the best of times”.

What the critics said:

The entire film, if you have a couple of hours free!

Answers to the mini-quiz:
Moby Dick
A Christmas Carol
Romeo and Juliet
David Copperfield
The King James Bible