Canned history and muted histrionics are dutifully paraded in this earnest, overlong debut, which retells Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities from the viewpoint of the improbably heroic Sydney Carton.
He’s remembered as the jaded English attorney who substituted—and sacrificed—himself for his “looking-glass image,” embattled French nobleman Charles Darnay, the beloved husband of (Carton’s secret love) Lucie Manette. In Alleyn’s version, Carton is the disgruntled son of a demanding father who forces him into the practice of law, and further embittered when the first woman he loves leaves him for a wealthier man. While studying in Paris, then on a surprising later occasion, Carton makes the acquaintance of Darnay, a rather passive sort encumbered by a scandalous family history, a trumped-up charge of spying, and eventually a “denunciation” by bloodthirsty Jacobins who are sending royalty, aristocrats, and all suspected “enemies of the [French] Revolution” headlong to the guillotine. Carton, having fled the law and England and returned to Paris, piques our interest as a self-despising wastrel with tendencies toward nobility of spirit; but Alleyn’s potentially striking characterization is subordinated to his inevitable experience or observation of such watershed phenomena as the storming of the Bastille, the murder of revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat and the “Law of Suspects” jerry-rigged to identify supposed “traitors,” as well as Carton’s (varyingly credible) relationships with historical figures Robespierre, Saint-Just, Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. Matters aren’t helped by Alleyn’s breathless prose, particularly her unfortunately high-flown dialogue, a mixture of romantic fustian and exposition-heavy authorial overmanagement. Still, several of her fictional characters strike a few sparks—notably Darnay’s cousin, fiery bluestocking Eleonore d’Ambert, who beds, weds, betrays, and abandons Carton with seemingly equal amounts of enthusiasm and savoir faire.
Not all bad by any means, but Dickens’s Tale remains the gold standard, and Alleyn’s bold effort is little more than a pale imitation of it.