Charles Dickens’s 1859 novel - “the best story I have written,” in the author’s own appraisal at the time - has received a series of highly diverse adaptations for the musical stage over the years. These range from fairly traditional approaches such as Jeff Wayne’s 1968 version Two Cities and Jill Santoreiello’s 2008 adaptation for Broadway to more creative, idiosyncratic renderings. Howard Goodall’s 2006 adaptation, for instance, shifted the action to the Russian Revolution, while the all-female Japanese opera company Takarazuka Revue also staged a version in the early 1980s.
David Pomeranz, Stephen David Horwich and David Soames’s musical adaptation favours a traditional, if low-key, approach to Dickens’s text. The show was first seen at Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre in 1998, and then opened in a reworked version Upstairs at the Gatehouse in 2008; it's now been revived at the Charing Cross Theatre to coincide with the Dickens bicentenary celebrations, in a production directed by Paul Nicholas, who originally commissioned the piece. And while the show doesn’t feel particularly fresh, and may be destined to be dismissed by some as Les Mis-lite, Nicholas’s intimate production does offer some stirring moments and showcases several fine performances.
Although the setting of A Tale of Two Cities differs from Dickens’s usual canvas of Victorian England, the novel nonetheless explores a number of characteristically Dickensian themes: human suffering, poverty, sacrifice, nobleness of spirit. The two cities, of course, are Paris and London, and the focus is on the interwoven fates of a group of characters during the French Revolution and the Terror. Lucie Manette leaves France for England with her physician father Dr Manette after the latter is released from an eighteen year imprisonment in the Bastille, where he was placed for denouncing the powerful Marquis St Évremonde. On the journey, Lucie encounters and falls in love with Charles Darnay, a nephew of the Marquis, who has renounced his heritage due to the cruelties of the French aristocracy. As the action moves between France and England, and the revolution gains momentum, the other central characters come to the fore: notably Sydney Carton, a dissolute English barrister who shares both a striking resemblance to Darnay and a passion for Lucie, and the revolutionary firebrand Madame Defarge, who nurses a long-held grievance against the St Évremondes and is determined to see the entire family line destroyed.
With its multiple location shifts and historical sweep, Dickens’s novel is an ambitious choice for a relatively modest, chamber musical approach. But despite some inevitable simplifications and occasional clunky moments, Horwich and Soames’s book does a decent enough job of compressing the narrative into a lucid two hour twenty minute entertainment. The opening is a little shaky: the piece is structured as a flashback, with Michael Howe’s Carton recounting the events that have led to his incarceration to Rebecca Wicking’s young seamstress in prison. But the production gains focus and momentum as it progresses, and Nicholas’s no-frills staging keeps the proceedings trim and lively for the most part.
Alternating tender laments and rousing anthems, Pomeranz’s score - very well played on two pianos - is serviceable rather than outstanding, and Horwich’s lyrics are not always inspired. But the numbers are well performed by a committed cast, and helped along by unshowy but expressive choreography by Racky Plews. Standout supporting performances come from Jemma Alexander as a driven, surprisingly sexy Madame Defarge (the actress’s passing resemblance to Germaine Greer does her no harm at all), from the commanding Craig Berry as Monsieur Defarge and from Pippa Winslow as a perpetually pursed Miss Pross. Jennifer Hepburn and John Fleming are a touching father/daughter duo as Lucie and Dr. Manette, while David Alder as the banker Jarvis Lorry and Mark Slowey as the spy Barsad contribute vivid, colourful characterisations.
Still, it’s Michael Howe as Carton who’s the beating heart of this production: the actor delivers a warm, wry and beautifully sung performance that movingly charts the character’s trajectory from self-absorbed dissoluteness to love and redemption. It’s a quirky piece of casting that’s paired the mature Howe with the relatively youthful Jonathan Ansell as potential doubles for one another, but Howe’s heartfelt performance overcomes this inanity, just as his vocal delivery redeems some of Pomeranz’s drippier lyrics. Ansell (who’s alternating the role of Darnay with Antony Hansen) doesn’t bring a comparable distinctiveness to his Darnay, sadly; he’s slightly stiff at times, though warms up in his big Act 2 number “No Sacrifice Too Great.”
Hardly a revolutionary work, then, but this Tale of Two Cities is, nonetheless, a creditable addition to the canon of Dickens musical adaptations, and Nicholas’s production is worth a visit.
'***** (five stars) A beautiful tale of love and sacrifice' Ham & High
'Sizzles with emotion and conviction' Reviewsgate
In celebration of the bicentenary of Charles Dickens, PNPF in association with Ovation present the New Musical ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ Based on the much loved Dickens story, this classic tale depicts one man’s ultimate sacrifice for love. Set against the brutal conflicts between the rebels and aristocracy during the French revolution and its parallel world in 19th Century London society. With well over 200 million copies sold, A Tale of Two Cities ranks among the most famous works in the history of fictional literature.
With Music by David Pomeranz and Book by Steven David Horwich and David Soames, John Cameron’s (Les Miserables) moving musical arrangements underscore Horwich’s compelling lyrics.
Dramatically staged by the multi-talented Paul Nicholas, Dickens’s classic tale of love and sacrifice is brought to life in this stunning new musical.
Charing Cross TheatreThe Arches, Villiers Street
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2N 6NG
Evenings: 7.30pm Monday - Saturday
Matinees: 4.30pm Saturday.
Extra School's Matinee: May 9th at 2.30pm
Michael Howe (Sydney Carton) & Jonathan Ansell (Charles Darnay) in A Tale of Two Cities © Mitzi de Margary
Craig Berry (Mons Defarge) in A Tale of Two Cities © Mitzi de Margary
Jemma Alexander (Madam Defarge) in A Tale of Two Cities © Mitzi de Margary