Review: The Tale of Two Cities (Lost Dog) Nottingham Playhouse

A Tale of Two Cities

Presented by Lost Dog, The Place and Warwick Art Centre

Devised by Ben Duke and the Company

Directed by Ben Duke

Tuesday 24th May 2022

Even the most devoted of Dickens’ fans cannot deny the plot of his historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities is somewhat convoluted. I am therefore intrigued as to how this epic tale will be distilled into a 90-minute stage performance. Amusingly, this is immediately addressed with the entrance of Lucie Manette (Jr.), played by Nina-Morgane Madelaine, who asks the audience if we have brought pen and paper in case we need to make notes or draw a family tree to understand events.

The original novel is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror. This radical re-imagining picks up the tale after the final page as Lucie Jr. questions the circumstances surrounding the dramatic fleeing of Paris by her mother Lucie Sr. (Valentina Formenti) and her father Charles (Hannes Langolf). For example, who was the mysterious woman who threatened the family at gunpoint?

She therefore decides to make a documentary and sets about interviewing family members, including her brother Sydney (John Kendall). Thus, an intimate family drama plays out in which secrets are discovered, lies are unearthed and we question the wisdom of delving too deep. Does Lucie Jr. deserve to know the whole truth, or might it be best to let sleeping dogs lie? Furthermore, what will be the emotional fallout of confronting the past?

This production is a pleasing fusion of theatre, dance, and digital filmmaking, whereby each element informs and enhances its counterparts. The set by Amber Vandenhoeck is a ruined house, the inside of which is obscured from audience view. This is so Lucie Jr.’s documentary filming can be projected on to the roof for all to see. There is also a large television screen to the side of the stage which fulfils the same purpose.

These screens force you to question what constitutes veracity, as they are slightly out of sync with the real time action. We are also drawn to address the quixotic nature of memory. Lucie Sr. and Charles bicker about what happened at his trial, cementing the notion of each character owning their own individual version of the ‘truth.’

The video design by Will Duke blends live-feed action with recorded material which allows all manner of visual trickery. For instance, Langolf can play opposite himself as both Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. We also see the house convincingly set ablaze at one point.

The five strong cast are dressed in modern casual clothes with a pallet of beige, taupe, sage green and soft navy blue designed by Ryan Laight. There is a slight gallic flavour to them, yet they are also utilitarian and most importantly, do not distract from the dance. We may be in the 1800s, but these anachronisms, including a mention of Amnesty International, somehow work.

The plot thickens with the arrival of Madame Defarge (Temitope Ajose-Cutting). She informs us that we may think she is part of the sub-plot, but in her opinion, she is decidedly the main action. My advice is not to worry too much about every plot detail but to sit back and enjoy the beautiful choreography and accomplished acting.

Marvel at a silent, slow-motion depiction of a rioting mob or the disturbing unravelling of Madame Defarge as she discovers what really happened to her sister. This is striking, physical storytelling; my favourite part being an exquisite duet between Langolf and Kendall, where aggression and dominance become a beautifully extolled act of sacrifice. The dance elements skilfully transport you in a way which negates too much Dickensian exposition.

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ is one of the most famous opening lines in literature and I can definitely say that I had the best of times watching this unconventional and astute re-interpretation of a classic.

Running time – 90 minutes (no interval)

Age Guidance – 14+

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