Stars explained: * A production of no real merit
with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not
enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real
life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A
good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely
achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a
great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major
flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic
which lifts theatre to another plane.
A tale of two cities
‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’
These, famously, are Sydney Carton’s final words in A Tale of Two Cities. And make no mistake about it, Jane Railton’s exceptionally well-conceived staging for the Criterion Theatre of Charles Dickens’ classic was a far better, indeed infinitely more stylish and polished event than I had ever imagined or expected.
The Criterion has a substantial and gifted membership, so that for this intensely thoughtful production it managed to field a cast of 25, fulfilling some 40 roles or so. Even those who acted as jury members often found some other persona – victims on the way to the guillotine, or crowd willing them on, for instance. And they all displayed a pleasing measure of acting talent, so that the crowd or group scenes came alive with banter and gossip, malicious and cruel outbursts, or with wild enthusiasm countered by angry cries of ill-justified revenge.
Hence there were no weak links. All cast members were focused and motivated, and seemed handsomely drilled. To enliven them all and charge the entire cast with such palpable energy must be attributable to vital and carefully observant direction. One could go further: even the stage resetting – there was quite a lot – worked like clockwork, impeccably planned and refinedly executed.
The adaptation, by Mike Poulton, managed to squeeze the story, or its essence, into two and a half hours. By and large it worked very adequately: key characters were retained, the narrative was largely kept going, and with a few exceptions, pace was maintained – sometimes more, perhaps, thanks to this energised production than to those occasional, indeed rare, moments when the momentum of the story was fractionally lost.
The pleasing quality of the acting – indeed of the whole presentation – became clear at the very outset, when the trial in England of Charles Darnay (Pete Meredith) took off with a vigour and spirit largely supplied by the defence counsel, Mr.Stryver (Brian Emeney), who saw off prosecution witnesses with considerable aplomb, and took few prisoners. Emeney would later appear as Monsieur Defarge, and as one of Darnay’s Republican gaolers. This was polished and able acting which added much to the force of the production.
Darnay’s offence to the French is of course to be nephew to the Marquis Saint Evremonde, a part played with vigour and apt insensitivity – his coach brings death and havoc to one particular poor Parisian family – by Keith Railton. So grim and careless is he that he gets his come-uppance, although Railton, who delivered the Prologue with ample command, also turns up later as a highly effective revolutionary presiding judge.
The way the execution of the Count’s murderer is shown, in shadow at rear, was thoroughly professional, whether the work of Lighting Designer Karl Stafford, who produced some particularly evocative effects with shadow and spotlight, or Set Designer Peter Horton, whose set served well enough, though being plain and simple it lacked something in impact, especially as unchanged throughout. However, the costumes and not least the wigs were terrific (Pam Coleman Wardrobe Mistress), adding much to the visuals.
Who else stood out? Neil Vallance as Dr. Manette, former prisoner of the Bastille, gave one of the most distinguished showings: a splendidly sympathetic, beautifully poised, thoroughly intelligent performance. There were nice vignettes from Matt Baxter as a cynical citoyen (as well as the sly witness Barsac); and likewise Mike Crawshaw as Mr. Lorry’s supportive and loyal aide, Jerry Cruncher. Jarvis Lorry himself, dutiful to company and clients alike, was played with authority and decency by Hugh Sorrill. Lorry brings a degree of sanity to the story, and Sorrill did just that, handsomely.
Poulton has chosen to set virtually all of part one (the Evremonde demise apart) in England. This has the effect of developing the character of Carton, played by Sean Glock with an apt mixture of pessimism (‘longing to be rid of this world, and it of me’), loucheness and confidence. We are thus prepared for his final self-sacrifice; but we also find him to be not without passion, longing to cast aside his melancholy and be a suitor for the hand of Lucie Manette (Lisa Franklin).
In ceding to Darnay (Meredith) Carton is condemning himself to a life of loneliness and even, he feels, pointlessness. It’s difficult to see how it might have worked, for Lucie is a rather shy and wet character, like one of the lesser creatures of Jane Austen; and Darnay, though beautifully spoken, is even wetter: completely unversed in the ways of the world.
The character we were awaiting – a little too postponed in this version – is Madame Defarge, and we were not disappointed. Cathryn Bowler almost effortlessly turned the revolutionary obsessive into a vicious monster: having lost both brother and sister her urge to revenge, indeed her fury, is perhaps understandable; but – clad in a red that bespoke her bloodthirstiness - we were treated to a sinister, venomous, callous hell-cat; a terrific creation by Bowler, and it is hardly surprising even her husband (Emeney) disowns her when she sets her heart on into the bargain dooming Lucie and Darnay’s unborn child.
The entire second half of this in so many ways fine, scrupulously well-rehearsed production was tense, gripping and deliciously brutal and unpleasant. No doubt about it, Dickens was nobly served. To 22-10-16