Theatre review: A Tale of Two Cities: Blood for Blood

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Charles Dickens’s tale of espionage, intrigue and revenge set in London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution is, to state the obvious, a complex and lengthy book.

Star rating: ****

Venue: Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)

Jonathan Holloway’s version, for theatre company Red Shift, pares it down to 90 minutes of short, punchy scenes delivered by an ensemble of seven, while keeping its themes and essence broadly intact.

Neil Irish’s design places the story in the mid-20th century, in what might be a radio studio. When not in scenes, the actors are providing vocal harmonies for Sarah Llewellyn’s ever-present and evocative soundtrack.

The stage is covered with rows of neat wooden chairs, each with a pair of shoes beside it, evoking a sense of a much larger cast of characters, but also at times restricting the actors’ movements.

Even abridged, there is a lot of plot to get through, and it requires energy and commitment on the part of both actors and audience to stay abreast of it. One of the main changes Holloway makes is that the child killed by Lord Evremonde’s carriage (in this version a car) is the son of the revolutionary instigators, M and Mme Defarge, so their motivation to punish the ruling class becomes not only ideological, it is driven by a terrible personal revenge.

Nicki Hobday’s performance as the ruthless, grief-stricken Mme Defarge becomes the emotional heart of the play.

A co-production with Chung Ying Theatre in Hong Kong, though the creative team and actors are all British, it’s a slick production strongly performed. However, it doesn’t seem quite clear whether it wants to be a 1950s noir movie, or a moral and political tale about how close justice and revenge can be, and the possibility of redemption through personal sacrifice.

Until 28 August. Today 2:40pm.