Two Cities, Salisbury Playhouse, Salisbury <!-- none onestar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

In an early scene in Two Cities, a snooty Edwardian gent remonstrates on a quayside with some obstructive Russian sailors. "We are sailing to England via Sweden," he tells them, reinforcing his point with a helpful translation - "Englandski via Swedenski". It's a pity that the creators of this new musical - composer Howard Goodall and director Joanna Read, who wrote the book - seem to share the English toff's idea of what makes something Russian. As far as a genuine Slavic feel in the score or a true interest in the political situation are concerned, the piece might just as well have been called Les Miski.

The acknowledged debt is to Dickens. The musical transposes A Tale of Two Cities to London and St Petersburg in the years between 1913 and the Bolshevik Revolution. The two lookalike heroes - the self-despising, dissolute English lawyer and the émigré Russian noble - are modelled on those in the novel, which is also the source of the plot involving rivalry in love and heroic substitution on the scaffold. As a composer, Goodall loves to counterpoint the emotional fates of far-flung characters in intricately interwoven duets and he seizes gratefully on the scenario here with songs that are finely delivered by David Ricardo-Pearce's captivating Sydney Carton and Ben Goddard's fervent Yevgeny.

Part of the trouble, though, is that awkward reminders of Les Mis keep being thrown up - banner-waving revolutionaries hector the audience; chirpy prostitutes sing a ditty about street life; a young woman and her unjustly incarcerated father are reunited. Goodall has an undoubted gift for melody, but as we witness the oppressed becoming brutal oppressors in their turn, there are so few Slavic inflections in the well-bred score that the Revolution comes to feel like a generic convenience, the fake-urgent turmoil mere fodder for an unengaged piece of music theatre.

The book is an embarrassment ("My face in the gutter/My life is an utter/ Mess" sings Carton), and despite the clever structure (the second half is a distorted twin of the first), the piece feels over-long.

To 30 September (01722 320333)

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