James Dacre, the new artistic director at the Royal & Derngate, has started off his tenure with an epic masterpiece.
Charles Dickens’ Tale Of Two Cities, which opened last night, is a vast sweeping story about the French Revolution seen through the eyes of affected families, played out over two countries and featuring a cast of, oh, it seems hundreds – all squeezed onto the intimate Royal stage. It was a snug fit.
But he’s pulled off a cracker of a drama, beautifully and tightly adapted by writer of the moment Mike Poulton, whose previous work on Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies and Wolf Hall have been a critical and commercial success for the RSC.
The classic is a favourite, loved by both the public and Dickens, yet rarely performed on stage. Perhaps the enormous narrative puts off producers.
But Dacre has boldly gone for the big gesture, launching himself and the venue’s Made In Northampton season with a magnificent flourish.
At the heart of the story is a rather coyly enacted love triangle, one of those tacit affairs which hangs in the air rather than being physically expressed, between a new-age French aristo, Charles Darnay, a doctor’s daughter and a dissolute, manic depressive, drunken lawyer called Sydney Carton.
Darnay lurches from one scrape to another, his life constantly under threat, as, on the wider political stage, England engages war with America and France is thrown into turmoil with a trifling uprising known as The French Revolution.
The production, which benefits from a superb score by Rachel Portman, boasts striking sets designed by Mike Britton and features an ensemble from the neighbourhood.
It’s an interesting experiment which has worked well.
They didn’t exactly drag peasants off the streets to make up the rabble hordes but near enough (although a few trainee actors are doing work experience in the mob scenes).
They’re a rowdy bunch who make up the play’s juries, its baying crowds and courtroom extras, the militant revolutionaries and, in an iconic tableau, attendees at the foot of Madame Guillotine.
The professional cast give some powerful and passionate performances.
Joshua Silver, not long out of RADA, is compelling as the idealistic Darnay, a man despised and persecuted by both England and France. He acquits himself well, playing the romantic hero with conviction.
Dickens wanted Tale Of Two Cities to be his cautionary tale of the dangers of political unrest and upheaval and Poulton has done an excellent job of distilling the key elements of this enormous story without losing any of its impetus.
Oliver Dimsdale’s lawyer, Sydney Carton, is a pretty unsympathetic hero. It’s hard to empathise with him, even when he commits the ultimate noble gesture.
The actor does the very best that he can with a man who wallows in self-pity, drinks himself senseless and makes half-hearted romantic gestures towards the pretty Lucie Manette (Yolanda Kettle) but the guy is totally unlikable.
The problem with a lot of the story’s characters is they’re not as fleshed out as in other novels, nor is there his trademark humour. Everyone is lightly sketched (no doubt by Boz).
Dickens seems so obsessed with the broader canvas that he’s almost forgotten about the individuals within.
Christopher Hunter has a particularly good cameo as the arrogant and sadistic Marquis, Darnay’s entitled uncle, as well as, a little later, a powdered fop of a French aristocrat.
Abigail McKern’s roles as a tart and a ladies maid do provide a modicum of light relief, especially when she takes out a vindictive French female assassin.
Tale Of Two Cities is thrilling stuff that even comes with a twist or two. The production is a first rate start for Dacre who has made a confident debut at a theatre with an established reputation for top quality and innovative drama.
Running until March 15 . For tickets call the box office 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk