To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee, dramatised by Christopher Sergel
Touring Consortium and York Theatre Royal.
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and touring
(2011)

To Kill a Mockingbird production photo

Harper Lee’s one and only published novel, the powerfully emotive semi-autobiographical story of her life in 1930’s Alabama, is brought to the stage with Damian Cruden directing. Having recently re-read the book, so engrossing that I could hardly put it down, and remembering Cruden’s superbly involving production of The Railway Children presented in the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station, I was expecting a very emotional evening (I had stocked up on tissues for the occasion) yet surprisingly this version left me largely unmoved, although I could not fault performances.

The story is told by Jacqueline Wood, keeping a watchful presence as an adult Jean Louise Finch re-visiting the scene of her childhood in the small, racially segregated dirt town of Maycomb when she was an innocent, enquiring child (known as Scout) and, in the manner of memories, it is a little disjointed leaping from one event to another. Perhaps that is the reason I could not feel totally involved, yet even at almost three hours long it was not boring. For a “tired old town where people moved slowly because there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with” an amazing amount seems to have occurred during the three to four years covered.

Grace Rowe is perfection as the young Scout, an eager energetic tomboy, ready for a fight if the situation deserves one, yet mindful of her understanding lawyer father Atticus who tries to bring up her and older brother Jem to always be respectful of the feelings of others. “You never really understand a person until you .... climb inside of his skin and walk around in it”.

It takes Scout a while, but finally she does just that.

Matthew Pattimore does well as the young and sometimes truculent Jem, but could have been more forceful when his growing manhood makes him stubbornly insist on standing by his father despite danger, and Graeme Dalling is a joy as childhood friend Dill (believed to be based on true-life friend Truman Capote) bringing a few comic moments to the tale.

“It’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird...... They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us” and it could be said that there are several ‘mockingbirds’ in this tale, but the most obvious one is Negro Tom Robinson, tried and found guilty for a rape he had obviously not committed, but with the word of a white girl against a black man, in the climate of America’s Deep South, he had no chance. The courtroom scene, before the interval and resuming in Act Two, is the most engrossing part of the show, and superbly performed, with Duncan Preston reprising his role as Atticus Finch, getting old and slightly crumpled, but leading his life with integrity and morality, and Robin Simpson as prosecuting lawyer Mr. Gilmer, each finally addressing the audience as if to the jury. Cornelius Macarthy’s Tom is dignified and honest in the witness box, while even with her false accusations Clare Corbett’s heartrending performance elicits sympathy and pity for the downtrodden ignorant and terrified Mayella Ewell, fearful of her brutal and drunken father Bob, a very convincing Mark White, with some strong performances too from Jacqueline Boatswain, Andy Hockley and Elexi Walker.

I’m not sure if this is the exact adaptation by Christopher Sergel as neither he nor Lee are credited in the programme but in spite of the enthusiastic reception from most of the audience I found it, with the exception of the courtroom scene, a little lack-lustre and understated - an enjoyable enough evening but disappointing compared to the original.

Touring to Bath, Blackpool, Richmond, Plymouth and Wolverhampton

Reviewer: Sheila Connor