A Tale of Two Cities – King’s Head Theatre – Review

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I made my way to my inaugural visit to The King’s Head Theatre not in my best frame of mind to be honest. A crazily busy week at work had meant I was pretty shattered. However I was keen to see this production and to say hello to some of my Terence Rattigan Society friends who were attending this on Thursday night. I’m so glad I did make the effort as this evening at the theatre refreshed and rewarded me.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher certainly gets my award for most engaging and passionate artistic director I’ve met.  He introduced the evening and certainly piqued my interest to see what comes on at this theatre in the future.

When telling a friend earlier this week I was going to go and see this, their reply was “how on earth can they condense the text and perform it in such a small theatre??”  Well they do it splendidly. I admit I’ve not read the original novel and I’m sure it’ll not please some Dickens’ aficionado. From an audience member’s view though, Rattigan and Gieldgud have distilled the essence and I found it riveting. This is a great authors novel adapted for the stage by a great playwright, and it shows.

Stewart Agnew - a great professional debut.

Stewart Agnew – a great professional debut.

I was impressed by the cast. The eight actors present thirty characters in the course of the play! A testament to their skills that each character comes alive and you feel you are watching someone else. Stewart Agnew as Sydney Carton is an incredible performance. This was the part John Gielgud was going to play, huge boots to fill, but he does it ably and with great panache.  It’s hard to believe, but on reading the program Stewart Agnew has only just graduated from East 15 Acting School. Few recent graduates would have the depth and maturity he shows here.

Jennie Gruner gives a fragile edge to Lucie Manette and Nicholas Bishop as love interest Darnay excels. However it is Shelley Lang who is the greatest chameleon of them all. Her performance as Stryver was one of the best parts of the production for me.

Jennie Gruner and Nicholas Bishop as the lovers caught in the web Dickens has woven.

Jennie Gruner and Nicholas Bishop as the lovers caught in the web Dickens has woven.

So you’ve read thus far and must be expecting there to be five stars below. Alas no. There is one area I think didn’t quite work and one I thought was unnecessary. The choice by director Adam Spreadbury-Maher to set it in modern dress I can understand, but the black leather look of the cast just didn’t work for me. Also the use of modern songs blaring out between scenes just jarred with the world of the play. It didn’t make it feel modern or relevant. The story is strong enough to not warrant such cheap devices to try to make it accessible. (See my review of Great Expectations to see how being in period dress can still make a piece seem relevant and set a perfect atmosphere.)

The part I thought unnecessary was an admittedly brief but gratuitous scene with the Marquis and his man-servant. I felt this was being done to make it appear a “raw/gritty” play, but it’s just not necessary (and it’s not actually in the script).The subtlety of the scene was lost for the cheap thrill of the gratuitous.

The above are minor quibbles and in no way diminish my recommendation that this is certainly the play to catch in London at the moment. An invigorating and entertaining night at the theatre.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★

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