There was anticipation and trepidation in equal measure at last night's opening of A Tale of Two Cities at Oxford Playhouse. Would Dickens' masterly story of love and sacrifice set against the backdrop of the French Revolution survive the transition from novel to play? And would they be able to fit Paris on what is, after all, a rather small stage?
The answer to both questions turned out to be a resounding yes (or oui, depending on your point of view).
Mike Poulton's adaptation is superb and is undoubtedly set to be one of the highlights of the theatrical year. Although Dickensian purists may mourn the compression of some much-loved scenes and the complete excision of Jerry Cruncher's colourful extra-mural activities, Poulton has cut carefully and sparingly to produce a well-tailored script that focuses on the core narrative and carries the action forward without losing any of the power of Dickens' language.
Everything about this production works – there's nothing gimmicky or overstated. The muted costumes of the English contrast with the bold colourful costumes of the French Revolutionaries and the luxurious dress of the aristocrats. A simple, understated set allows the action to move quickly between prison cells, quiet domesticity, crowded courtrooms and the terror-filled streets of the French capital.
An outstanding cast completes a powerful theatrical experience. Among the minor characters, special mention must go Christopher Hunter as the chilling President of the Revolutionary Court. The accolade, however, goes to Jon Tarcy for his outstanding performance as Sydney Carton, whose redemptive journey from dissolute, unloved wretch to self-sacrificing hero moved last night's audience to tears in the closing scene.