A Tale of Two Cities review at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London – ‘A thudding misfire’
What a mess. It’s not just the fluffed lines, the technical failures and the set malfunctions that make this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ inequality epic such a misfire. It’s the whole concept.
How can something with such noble intentions – to place side by side the injustices of poverty and the inevitability of populism both now and in the 18th century – thud so spectacularly?
For one thing, Matthew Dunster’s adaptation is as far from subtle as it gets. Two tiny television screens flicker with images of (surprise, surprise) Donald Trump and Theresa May. Fly Davis’ set consists of three shipping containers, and the opening scene is set between Dover and Calais. A rich monseigneur even has a golden toilet, while the characters wear a mix of modern and period costumes. Dunster clearly doesn’t trust the audience to draw its own parallels between then and now.
The characters speak in dialogue that is devoid of rhythm to the extent that, most of the time, it’s difficult to know what’s going on. It clings to a kind of arch, Dickensian vernacular that makes the plot completely unfathomable for those who don’t know the book and kills the pace dead at any given opportunity.
The incomprehensible script is one thing, but direction by the usually reliable Timothy Sheader compounds the production’s many problems. Actors announce the title of each scene while the words flash on the tiny TV screens, and characters are forever moving in and out of the shipping containers for no reason.
Every member of the creative team has thrown something different at the stage and none of it coheres. The elements – the splashes of red lighting as blood is spilled, the choreographed chorus of rioters, the Dickensian language, the piddly video screens – all work against one another. Everything is stylised, but in competing ways.
When it comes to set pieces, like the storming of the Bastille, it’s more like a storming in a teacup. It’s as wet and anticlimactic as a summer holiday in the Highlands.
For all the production’s faults, the cast does an admirable job of keeping the show strung together, with one or two stirring performances. Jude Owusu makes a moving Darnay, the aristocrat who rejects his wealth and status, and Kevork Malikyan is gentle and avuncular as kindly bank clerk Mr Lorry. There’s some versatile ensemble work, too, from Francesca Mills, Lewis Griffin and Sean Cernow, among others.
But they’re so surrounded by gimmickry and so burdened with a clumsy script that there’s little chance for them to shine. The production tries so hard to be cool, to be contemporary, relevant. But the more the show aims for cutting edge, the more it feels like a blunt instrument.