Robert Tanitch reviews A Tale of Two Cities at Richmond Theatre, Surrey, and touring
Charles Dickens said on its publication that A Tale of Two Cities was the best story he had written. Not everybody agreed.
The novel has never been popular with the critics; but it has always been hugely popular with the general reader, ever since its weekly serialization throughout 1859.
In January 1860 the story was on the stage, adapted by Tom Taylor. Dickens, a keen amateur actor, acted as consultant.
Dickens loved theatre and one of the reasons his novels have adapted so well to the stage was precisely because they were so melodramatic.
Melodrama was the most popular form of entertainment in Victorian theatre.
Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, two young men of the same age, who have an uncanny resemblance to each other, love the same woman.
Carton, a drunk, degenerate wastrel, tired of life, finally finds redemption in Paris during the Reign of Terror.
His self-sacrifice remains the most celebrated in 19th century literature and his exit lines are amongst the most often quoted:
“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.”
The most successful and longest-running stage adaptation was The Only Way, written by two clergymen, Frederick Longbridge and Freeman Wills, and premiered by John Martin-Harvey in 1899.
Sydney Carton was Martin-Harvey’s most famous role and he would go on acting him for the next 40 years. He was 67 during its final run.
There have been numerous films. The most well-known are the 1935 American version with Ronald Colman and the 1958 British version with Dirk Bogarde. There have also been numerous TV adaptations.
Mark Poulton is an expert adaptor. He adapted Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the stage and he has done a first-rate job with A Tale of Two Cities.
Director James Dacre cleverly creates an epic performance with limited means. His very enjoyable touring production – with a good cast headed by Joseph Timms as Sydney Carton and Jacob Ifan as Charles Darnay – has plenty of pace and urgency.
The production is an excellent calling card for Dacre and is strongly recommended to all those who love Dickens and good old-fashioned Victorian melodrama acted seriously and without condescension.
A Tale of Two Cities will be visiting Bradford, Blackpool, Wolverhampton, Brighton, Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Nottingham. Don’t miss.