Adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities is the most recent play by actor, director and playwright Matthew Dunster. Directed by Timothy Sheader, Dunster’s work returns to the Regents Park Open Air Theatre with a disturbing relevancy. Written in the nineteenth century and set in London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution, Dickens’ narrative has lurched into our Great British present in light of the recent terror attacks in Manchester, on London Bridge, and of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower. Each event whispers of Dickens’ interest in violent revolutionary activity, and of his preoccupation with the possibility of class uprisings.

It is the best of times, and the worst of times in eighteenth century London and Paris. Three families, the Manettes, the Defarges and the Evremondes inhabit these places of past injustices, and it is through their story that one of Dickens’ most widely read books comes to life. Spanning the years 1775-1792, A Tale of Two Cities is tightly bound by a tale of love and sacrifice. This time of social and political unrest reaches across generations, before landing in the lap of a twenty-first century Western audience. When will those in power learn from their mistakes? And how long will it be until enough is enough?

Three blue cargo holds tower above the audience in a pyramid, flanked by two screens attached to poles on either side of the stage. These screens flash with chapter headings from Dickens’s novel, and signpost the action as it unfolds. The world of the play is held inside these cyan cages, and once open, spill forth cast and narrative alike. The ensemble is diverse in both race and age, and all have some offstage experience as a refugee, immigrant, as a relative of an immigrant, or as a member of the British working class.

Indeed, moments of emotional torment during the performance are executed with impressive commitment, and it is at these times that the oppressive experiences of the troupe became immediately obvious. However, the cast are stronger together than they are as individuals, and their characterisation is in danger of becoming stereotypical. A strange casting choice by Polly Jerold threw the story into sharp disarray when the characters of Charles Darnay (played by Jude Owusu) and Sydney Carton (played by Nicholas Karimi) were revealed to be almost identical in appearance. The actors looked remarkably different from one another, and were of a mismatched ethnicity. This choice remained unclear as the performance endured, and did not serve the story well.

Choreography and movement proved to be the most powerful elements of the production. Created by Liam Steel, even the smallest of sequences were visually arresting, and filled the space with images that aided the communication of Dickens’s descriptive passages. In an unexpected and brilliant use of comedy, the ‘Monseigneur in Town’ was presented in a fanciful chariot drawn by three topless men in tight-fitting gold trousers. As horses, the three danced to house music, and were met with bubbles of laughter from the spectators. The production succeeded in satirising the aristocracy, and large scale comedic devices became progressively more innovative as the performance continued.

As night cast its dark eye across the theatre, helicopters chopped through the sky, loudly. Their presence seemed to act as a metaphor for the problems within this production: most distracting upon appearance. A firefly caught the light, and sparked the hopeful conclusion of the play – but can we share Dicken’s optimism?

That is a story that remains to be written.

A Tale of Two Cities is playing at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre until August 5. 

Photo: Johan Persson