This production of Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities certainly is not the best of times.
Matthew Dunster’s new adaptation sets Dickens’ story at the heart of the modern day refugee crisis. Characters weave in and out of three giant shipping containers wearing tracksuits, hoodies, and carrying their loved ones. Yet, in the same scenes, characters also wear traditional 18th century finery, mixing styles and adding to the general unfocused feel of this production.
At times, it’s hard to follow this story or really care about what is happening to these characters. As the play drags on (for over three hours), it flicks from Britain to France, back and forth from the 1700s to the present day. But at any given moment, it’s unclear where in the play you are, and that becomes increasingly frustrating as the night wears on.
So too does framing this play around the refugee theme. There is a lot that could be done to show how poverty can break a man, the injustices these people face, and the disparity between the rich and the poor. Instead, it merely pops up every now and again as crowds wrestle immigration officers, and images of Tony Blair, Theresa May and Donald Trump (of course) flash up on screens. It all feels very contrived.
The staging should be impressive. The shipping containers, one stacked up across two others, open up from all directions to reveal a new set. Despite the technical malfunctions that cause the show to pause, it helps the first half keep its pace, but the Monsigneur’s golden toilet was one step too far.
The first half of Timothy Sheader’s production has enough going on to hold your attention, but the second half flatlines into nothing but an hour of clunky dialogue. Some of the acting leaves much to be desired, so much so that it becomes difficult to care about many of the characters. It is hard to see the love Lucie and Darnay have for each other, or the relief she has when meeting her father for the first time.
That said, there is a fine turn by Nicholas Karami as Sydney Carton. His final profound monologue is one of the highlights of the evening. Nicholas Khan, too, provides some much needed comic relief.
You can see how each individual aspect of this production really did have potential, but nothing seems to come together.
A Tale of Two Cities tickets are available now.