Theatre review: A Tale of Two Cities, King's Head, London

 

There has never been a shortage of stage and film adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities. The unique selling point of this production is that it is the professional premiere of a version of Dickens's novel that was co-written in 1935 by Terence Rattigan and John Gielgud for a West End management. 

The show was pulled, though, as it was about to go into rehearsal, after emotional entreaties from the veteran actor Sir John Martin-Harvey.  He'd been touring in The Only Way, his own Tale, since 1899, and pleaded that, unless postponed, the new show threatened him with ruin. The novice Rattigan was so wounded by the blow and by Gielgud's blithe insouciance about it that he never published the play which, apart from one school production, has not been seen on stage. 

Salvaged now by the enterprising Adam Spreadbury-Maher, it reveals itself as a skilfully filleted melodrama that focuses on the sharp emotional symmetries of this study of doubleness and renunciation, while avoiding a full-blooded epic approach to the turmoil of the French Revolution. The concentration of effect is heightened by the production which, with striking flair and resourcefulness, manages to tell the story using a spirited ensemble of just eight actors who multi-task on a stark white traverse-stage in the charged intimacy of the King's Head.

The LED lighting, the eclectic clothes, the ironically placed snatches of Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin et al are designed to jolt us out of any costume-drama comfort zone.  Looking like some louche bad boy of the law in his leather gear, Stewart Agnew's magnetic Sydney Carton splendidly conveys how this dissolute barrister's cynical swagger is the mask for a growing sense of personal failure which can only be redeemed when he makes the ultimate gesture of self-sacrifice out of love for Jennie Gruner's compellingly sweet Lucie Manette. The doppelganger whose life is a reproach to him is the virtuous (if dull) former French nobleman. Charles Darnay (Nicholas Bishop).  But by having Agnew play both Carton and a screamingly fey take on the villainous Marquis de St Evremond, the production also incisively contrasts the cynicism of disguised regret with coldly remorseless aristocratic misanthropy.  

The production is uneven and sometimes strains to be daring, with the hand-held mikes during the treason trial or, in the episode where his carriage runs over a little girl, the presentation of the Marquis' horses as his terrorist-thug accomplices clad in black balaclavas. But it's always alive and provocative, and in the closing scenes very moving, and it's not just for Rattigan completists.    

To Oct 19; 020 7478 0160

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