This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
Plain wooden chairs fill the width of the stage in rows six deep. We await the arrival of an audience to face an audience, but the chairs remain vacant as if in a deserted church hall, leaving an eerie emptiness to be filled by just seven actors. They will bring to life Charles Dickens’ vision of a London, rife with greedy bankers and preying lawyers, looking across nervously at a Paris of post-revolution anarchy in which the innocent fear for their lives.
It is not a new idea to strip down a classic novel to its basics and reconstruct it for the theatre, but writer/director Jonathan Holloway finds inventive ways to trim all the fat from Dickens’ meaty work and replace it with striking images, sounds and atmosphere. The result is that the story’s core themes of revenge, passion and sacrifice shine through thrillingly. Voices echo from the back of the stage, haunting music (composed by Sarah Llewellyn) punctuates the action and subtly changing lighting takes us to dark places.
There are difficulties at first. Without period costumes or sets to point the way, we wonder who the characters are and whether they are in England or France, but confusion evaporates as strong performances replace it with clarity. Nicki Hobday’s Mme Defarge is fearsome, turned inhuman by grief and revenge following the loss of her child. The aptly named Cruncher, a bank porter who moonlights as a body snatcher, is played to chilling effect by James Camp who doubles as Charles Darnay, incognito heir to French nobility.
Graeme Rose’s surly Sydney Carton conveys perfectly the obsessive nature of a man who is an outsider, a hard drinking barrister so consumed by his love for Lucie Manette (Abby Wain) that he deludes himself to believe that one night spent with her will be enough to satisfy him. But Lucie is already betrothed to Darnay and the affair sets Carton on the path to the story’s famous climax that is played out here without cliché and with beautiful simplicity.
A co-production by Hong Kong’s Chung Ying company with the UK’s Red Shift Theatre Productions and Seabright Productions, Holloway’s adaptation is unconventional and memorable, not necessarily a far far better version than the original, but a vivid and stirring reimagining of it.
Performance date: 12 August 2016