Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird remains one of the most beloved - and most studied - of 20th century American novels. The book, which draws upon the author’s own Deep South background, is set in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s and concerns the trial of an African-American man, Tom Robinson, who’s accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. The events of the trial and the various reactions to it of the people of Maycomb are described by Jean Louise (“Scout”), the tomboyish daughter of Robinson’s defence lawyer Atticus Finch. Atticus is a single father to Scout and her older brother Jem since the death of the children’s mother some years before. A man of compassion and intelligence, he attempts to provide the children with a strong moral compass in a time of deep prejudice. For, throughout, the novel’s surface charm and its lyrical qualities are combined with a sharp critique of bigotry and intolerance, one that gives the piece an abiding power and resonance.
The novel’s reputation as a bona fide American classic was further enhanced by Robert Mulligan’s celebrated 1962 film version, but To Kill A Mockingbird has also had a considerable life on stage, especially in the US. Damian Cruden’s new production, which originated at York Theatre Royal and is now touring, was developed by The Touring Consortium, a company which was established in 1996 to produce curriculum-based drama, and which has staged To Kill A Mockingbird on two previous occasions. The production avails itself of Christopher Sergel’s 40-year-old adaptation of the novel which attempts to replicate the text’s retrospective narration and the film’s use of voiceover by turning the piece into a memory play. Here, the young Scout (Grace Rowe) is shadowed by her older self (Jacqueline Wood) who addresses the audience and offers a running commentary on the action. This is an interesting but not entirely successful conceit, and one that sometimes proves a barrier to full engagement in the main events of the story by intrusively editorialising on what the audience is seeing. The production is also hampered by some odd ideas: the video projections which periodically punctuate the action seem entirely superfluous, and Liam Doona’s bleached, clapboard set is unattractive. In addition, several of the actors in the twenty one-strong cast lay on their Southern accents much too thickly, and overall, the production lacks an authentic sense of atmosphere, despite an excellent lighting design by Richard G. Jones and the best efforts of Christopher Madin’s rootsy score.
The production is at its best when at its least cluttered, and the courtroom scene, staged effectively to place the audience in the position of the jury, is a powerful highlight of the evening, with affecting work from Clare Corbett as Mayella and Cornelius Macarthy as Tom. Returning to the role of Atticus, which he first played in 2007, Duncan Preston gives a subtle, quietly authoritative performance, delivering his lines in a simple, economical way that undercuts any air of sanctity. The memory of Gregory Peck in the film version casts a long shadow, but Preston certainly succeeds in making the role his own. Filling out the background there’s good work from Jacqueline Boatswain as the family’s no-nonsense maid Calpurnia and from Andy Hockley as the town’s sheriff. And while Rowe, as Scout, and Matthew Pattimore as Jem never completely allow you to forget that you’re watching older actors pretending to be children, their performances certainly don’t lack for enthusiasm and energy. The best of the younger cast members, however, is Graeme Dalling as the siblings’ quirky, likeable friend Dill, a character based on Lee’s childhood friend and neighbour Truman Capote.
Overall, this is a solid but unspectacular production that never becomes quite as emotionally engaging as you might hope due to several odd and distracting elements. Nonetheless, the production boasts some memorable moments and performances, and certainly provides a worthwhile supplement to a close study of the novel for younger audiences.
The production runs for 2hrs 30 minutes. Further information about the tour here.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews