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Canberra Today 3°/9° | Saturday, April 13, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

‘Lost’ play’s novel story

“IT was the best of times, it was the worst of times”… what’s the bet most  readers recognise that as the opening sentence in Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel, “A Tale of Two Cities”?

It is, after all, director Adam Spreadbury-Maher asserts, “the world’s most successful novel, having sold over 200 million copies.”

Spreadbury-Maher is the brilliant Canberran who trained in drama and voice at the ANU then went on to become one of London’s best-known directors and, in a very short time, an Olivier Award winner.

Clever Stephen Pike, programming manager at The Q, has lured Spreadbury-Maher back home for six weeks to direct the book’s stage adaptation, enjoy some time with his family and to relish the Australian summer.

After an unusual, long-distance casting process, he and Pike have come up with a mix of veteran and not-so-veteran actors, with Calen Robinson heading up the cast as the doomed Sydney Carton and, cast against type, Hannah Ley as the bloodthirsty Madame Defarge.

Spreadbury-Maher is looking fit and trim for someone living the high life on the West End, telling me that he is in training for the Brighton Marathon.

“You have to play the game,” he says of life in London, but his Australian brashness does get him through doors.

He sometimes feels left out of the old-school-tie network and the endless theatrical reminisces about the good old ‘80s and ‘90s, but as a friend recently told him, “when you walk into a room you don’t have to throw a hand grenade, you know”.

It’s good to be back – for a while. “Canberra, it’s my home,” he tells “CityNews”, “it’s so wonderful to be back in the old house [on Canberra Avenue]… my great-grandfather was a minister at St John’s, you know.”

But it would be idle to pretend that Spreadbury-Maher isn’t relishing life in London. He rubs shoulders with the famous and is a regular house guest with playwriting luminaries Arnold Wesker and Edward Bond.

As an Aussie director, he proudly boasts that he has staged Australian playwrights, citing Hannie Rayson, Louis Nowra, Jack Hibberd and our own Tommy Murphy and Duncan Ley.

How he got “A Tale of Two Cities” is a tale in itself. First written nearly 80 years ago, it was commissioned from the novice playwright Terence Rattigan by John Gielgud, who wanted to play both the hero Sydney Carton and the arrogant Marquis de St Evrémonde.

To Rattigan’s chagrin, the play never got up, and although it’s had a few one-off showings and a school production, in professional stage terms it counts as a “new” work.

Spreadbury-Maher got wind of the script in 2011 and decided to give it a proper professional airing. Others were clawing for it, too, but he clung on and eventually his Australian tenacity saw him snare the performance rights.

Rattigan’s script creates dialogue from a novel strangely lacking in it, focusing on the more domestic stories of the Manettes, Defarges and St Evrémondes.

After a long editing process where he got it down from four to 2½ hours,  he staged a pilot production at the famous East 15 Acting School, later putting it on professionally at his own King’s Head Theatre to impressive reviews.


“A Tale of Two Cities” at the Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, February 5-16, bookings to or 6285 6290.


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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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