Thursday, 2 July 2015

Theatre review: To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is never far from the top in any poll of best-loved novels, a fact that Timothy Sheader's production references throughout with copies of the book ever present: All different shapes, sizes and covers reflecting how many editions there have been, the supporting cast sit at the sides when they're not playing a role, reading through the story that's unfolding on stage. It also turns them into a chorus, narrating the story of the Finch family of Alabama in 1935. Scout (Ava Potter at this performance, alternating with Jemima Bennett and Rosie Boore) and her older brother Jem (Tommy Rodger, alternating with Harry Bennett, Billy Price and Arthur Franks) lost their mother when they were very young and now live with their father Atticus and their cook Calpurnia (Susan Lawson-Reynolds.) This production originated at Regents Park, and for this Barbican revival Robert Sean Leonard returns to play Atticus, a lawyer putting his all into a case he knows he can't win in a still overtly-racist South: Tom Robinson (Zackary Momoh) is a black man accused of raping a white woman.

The case against Tom is nonexistent, but no Alabama jury has ever found in favour of a black man against a white one, and while his kids have faith in him, Atticus is less confident. This clash of racial tensions is seen by Scout through the prism of her everyday life growing up.

So the trial, which takes up most of the second act in Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation, is just one major event in Scout's childhood, which is otherwise largely preoccupied with trying to get the mysterious recluse Boo Radley (Christopher Akrill) to leave his house*. So, like the book, the play manages to deal with the most vicious aspects of racism in the Deep South without sacrificing any of its charm.

Although it does get used less as the play goes on, there remains a bit too much narration in Sergel's script, explaining what's going on even as we can clearly see it. But that's about the only real criticism I can think of in a production that gently but insistently hits all the right notes by seeing the absurdity of racial hatred through the eyes of a child. Jon Bausor's design sees the cast create the small town by drawing it in chalk on the stage, so that it becomes blurred like memory as the action goes on.

As star casting goes, Leonard is a great match for Atticus Finch, the archetypal crusading lawyer but not the usual bombastic figure - doggedly continuing in his defence of Tom, his default mode seems to be utter exhaustion, but he's still canny enough to see that Scout and Jem's best friend Dill (Connor Brundish, alternating with Leo Heller and Milo Panni) just wants to feel like he has a purpose. But with a show so dependent on child actors it's good to report that we had a very strong trio leading the show tonight. Despite its dark subject matter To Kill a Mockingbird has a message of hope that not everyone shares the mob mentality of the town, and Scout's generation may well see the absurdity of racism. Unfortunately 80 years after the story takes place, recent events in America's South have demonstrated it's a hope that we still need.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Christopher Sergel, based on the novel by Harper Lee, is booking until the 25th of July at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

*and perform his 1995 hit single "Wake Up Boo!"

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