To Kill a Mockingbird – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
To Kill a Mockingbird – Review
West Yorkshire Playhouse, March 2015
by Sandra Callard
Harper Lee’s extraordinary novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, has never been out of print since it was published in 1960. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. and it has also been made into a superb, Oscar-winning film in 1962. There have been many and varied stage productions, and now the West Yorkshire Playhouse hosts the acclaimed Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s production of Lee’s famous story. It is adapted for the stage by the late Christopher Sergel.
Set in a small town in Alabama during in the 1930s, the story centres on Scout, her elder brother Jem, and a friend Dill. They begin to shed their childhood innocence when their lawyer father, Atticus Finch (a quiet and enigmatic performance by Daniel Betts), defends a local black man who is accused of raping a white woman.
Atticus, fittingly in glasses and summer-suit, receives abuse and threats from the habitual racists in town. But he never waivers from his ethos that everyone deserves dignity and respect. He shows remarkable courage in the face of violence. He is the moral fulcrum for the children as they begin to understand adult themes. Jemima Bennett as Scout, Harry Bennett as Jem and Leo Heller as Dill play the children charmingly and believably. These classic and difficult parts require them to be in action on stage for the majority of the play. They all hold the stage like true professionals.
“Responsibility and commitment”
Instead of sets, the floor of the stage is roughly chalked with child-like depictions of the houses and streets in the small town where the action is played out. The actors appear from amongst the audience and make their way to the stage. Each reads the narrative of Scout Finch from different editions of the book. It sets the scene for what follows. Each reader speaks in their normal accent, rather than the forced, but necessary, adopted accents of the Deep South by the rest of the cast. This works really well.
The whole cast is always on stage, sitting quietly at the back, waiting for their entrance. This is not, surprisingly, intrusive at all. Instead it adds to the feeling that each member of the community should have a responsibility and commitment to every other member.
“Tension and dread”
Supporting actors offer some stellar performances. Ryan Pope plays the violent and unsavoury Bob Ewell to perfection. Connie Walker’s suggestive and racist bother-causer, Stephanie Crawford, hits the right distasteful notes. Natalie Grady’s Maudie Atkinson gives a voice of reason and hope to the riven community. Zachary Momoh plays Tom Robinson beautifully. His heart-wrenching and hopeless acceptance of the verdict is tough to watch.
Christopher Sergel’s adaptation for the stage is daring and innovative. The show has a stark quality about it. The barest of props are in use but this somehow adds to the atmosphere as the dramatic events unfold. The first act is sketchy and difficult to follow, as a huge chunk of the book is condensed. But the second act more than makes up for it. The tension and dread of the inevitable builds at the trial.
The play explores the timeless themes of growing up, injustice, fairness and the endless complexities of human failings and triumphs. It is a credit to Lee’s moving and enduring book.
images: Johan Persson