Charing Cross Theatre, 6th April 2012
It’s easy to see why ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is so appealing as a subject for a musical. Yet up until now, only one Dickens novel, Oliver Twist, seems to have hit the musical jackpot. It is said that Boubil and Schonberg were inspired to begin writing Les Miserables after seeing a production of ‘Oliver!’, so it was with some curiosity that we went to see this staging of what could be called ‘Les Miserables – the prequel’, being set as it is during the French Revolution.
Dickens ticks all the boxes for good source material for a musical: strong characters, dramatic storylines, a sense of historical context, and the promise of redemption. In A Tale of Two Cities, two men who happen to look almost identical follow very different paths. One, Charles Darney, is saved from the gallows by the other, dissolute but brilliant lawyer Sydney Carton. As Darney marries the woman they both fell in love with, their paths continue to cross until Carton makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his friend’s life for the sake of the woman he might have married.
Director Paul Nicholas skillfully manages to evoke this epic story in the relatively compact space of the Charing Cross Theatre. The storytelling is clear and concise, and the stage never seems cluttered despite numerous characters and complicated plotlines. Carton is used as a narrator to get the story started, but we are soon drawn straight into the action which is allowed to gather momentum with pacey scene changes and minimal use of sets.
At this point, we need to provide the following disclaimer:
The casting information contained in this post is for information only. While we endeavour to keep the information up to date and correct, we make no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about their completeness, accuracy, reliability, suitability, or availability. In other words, the management ran out of programmes and failed to supply a cast list on the website, of which more later. Thanks to Musical Theatre news, who seem to be the only source of casting information on the web.
If we knew who the casting director was, we would congratulate them for assembling such a strong cast. Amongst our favourites, Mark Slowey is suitably Dickensian as the amoral and cowardly Barsad; as madame Defarges, Jemma Alexander gave an impressive display of bitterness and bile – (never has knitting been so evil), nicely counterpoised by Craig Berry as her long-suffering husband; Miles Eagling as Carton’s fellow lawyer provides plenty of humour with his endearing over-optimism vis-a-vis his attractiveness to women; John Fleming as Doctor Manette, ‘recalled to life’ after 18 years in the Bastille, touchingly traces the journey from trauma to dignified generosity of spirit when he discovers that the son of his tormentor wants to marry his daughter.
As Sydney Carton, Michael Howe brings humanity and depth, as well as intelligence and humour to the character who has given up on life. This show is essentially his story, and whilst we never know much about his past, his final redemptive sacrifice is genuinely moving because we have seen the story through his eyes and witnessed the emotional awakening which finally allows him to see his own purpose clearly.
Jonathan Ansell (the only cast member mentioned on the official website) has clearly been positioned as the star of this show, being the most well-known member of the cast due to his success with G4, the classical ‘boyband’ he formed whilst at the Guildhall School of Music Drama with three of his fellow students. In case you’re wondering, the ‘G’ stands for Guildhall. Yes, it’s the Guildhall Four. Not to be confused with the Guildford Four. Whilst possessing a very good voice, Ansell’s lack of musical theatre experience shows. He is engaging as Charles Darney but the sense of deeper emotion and youthful impulsiveness and passion is lacking. To make matters worse, he has been burdened with the world’s most annoying wig. We wouldn’t normally comment on such trivialities, but it really was a distraction. The excessively long braid had a life of its own and at one point he looked like he had a mouse on his shoulder.
The book by David Soames and Steven Horwich and music by David Pomeranz have been well crafted, and the music complements the action and emotional undercurrents of the story beautifully. The power of the music came through even with the limitations of two grand pianos. The tightly choreographed montage sequence in which Carton submits himself to endless Sunday tea parties in an effort to get close to Lucie neatly moves the story forward; Lucie’s moving duet with her father the Doctor in which she urges him to express his grief and cry establishes both his torment and foreshadows his recovery; the early duet between the Defarges, in which we see Madame Defarges’ vengeful fury for the first time, is a powerful evocation of the sense of injustice which fuelled the revolution, as is her courtroom denunciation of Darney; and Sydney Carton has the final soliloquy, seamlessly incorporating those famous literary final words.
For anyone planning to go, we wouldn’t recommend the first three rows as there is no rake and the stage is high. Fortunately we were in row D! Overall, this was a real treat, and further proof that the West End is becoming less important as a purveyor of quality musical theatre. All we can say is
‘Please sir, I want some more’
Update: 8.7.12. There is rather strange footnote to this production, as any of you who saw the 7th July episode of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new casting show ‘Superstar’ will attest. Who should appear, amongst some other seasoned professionals, but Jonathan Ansell. After getting through to the callbacks, we are told of his ‘secret’, a contract to appear as Charles Darney in a ‘Tale of Two Cities’. Apparently this caused great consternation as Jason Donovan accused Ansell of letting his fans down. Yet former Jesus Paul Nicholas, interviewed on ‘Loose Women’, seemed unfazed, and even referred to an alternate having already been arranged. Tantalising as it is to think that perhaps there were plans for ‘Tale of Two Cities’ to go further, we can’t help thinking there’s a hidden agenda on the part of programme makers.