To Kill a Mockingbird

Adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, based on the novel by Harper Lee
Regent’s Park Theatre, Fiery Angel, Adam Spiegel and William Village
New Victoria Theatre, Woking

Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch, Christopher Saul as Walter Cunningham and Jemima Bennett as Scout Credit: Johan Persson
Harry Bennett as Jem, Jemima Bennett as Scout, Geoff Aymer as Reverend Sykes and Leo Heller as Dill Credit: Johan Persson

Almost the whole cast stand at the front of the stage as an introduction, each with book-in-hand, and as the story is narrated by one after another, changing characters as they read, the action begins to take over.

This is Scout’s story, a seven-year-old child playing with her older brother Jem and visiting friend Dill, describing what she saw and trying to make sense of the world and the attitudes of the folks around her.

Her hometown is in the Southern States of America, and she recalls a time in 1930s when her lawyer father was, to the anger and disgust of the community, defending a negro against the charge of rape. It exposes the small-minded racism of a supposedly respectable community who would let an innocent black man die rather than take his word over that of his white trash accusers.

In the Regent’s Park production, I was impressed that all the characters looked exactly as I has imagined them to be. Here they are not quite so close to my imagination, but it’s very good casting just the same with Daniel Betts playing the part of lawyer Atticus Finch as a very weary and resigned man, a widower bringing up his two children as best he can, and I cannot think that his teaching could be bettered.

Jon Bausor’s set is simply a large and very sturdy tree, with a rubber tyre hanging to make a swing, and other props—picket fence with gate, bed, rocking chair etc are placed in position by the cast, while throughout the production composer Phil King is present, his music a lyrical backdrop to the performance, emphasising and enhancing each facet of the tale.

Sergel’s adaptation has cut out large chunks of narrative and gets right to the heart of the story, all events leading up to the trial of negro Tom Robinson (movingly performed with a fearful dignity by Zackarky Momon). I thought there could have been more tension and menace in the mob of men, complete with noose, confronting Atticus outside the jail, however their murderous intent is beautifully deflected by Scout who innocently chats to the leader as a friend and reminds him of his humanity.

Jemina Bennett is Scout, making a darned good job of her professional debut and of the Southern accent, although that sometimes made it difficult to catch all the words. The same applies to Leo Heller as Dill. Harry Bennett as Jem is a little older and more experienced having played Dill in the production at Regent’s Park, and is as clear as a bell.

Connie Walker tends to overact rather, making her characters almost into caricatures, but there are also some exceptional performances. Susan Lawson-Reynolds as Calpurnia gives a beautiful balanced performance between motherliness and strictness, and Victoria Bewick is totally convincing as Mayella Ewell, the poor white-trash girl falsely claiming rape, while you wouldn’t want ever to come into contact with her father, as evil and vicious a man as Ryan Pope makes him.

Lee apparently plays down the autobiographical aspect of this, her first and only novel, but this timeless and classic tale closely matches events in her early life. Its message is clear, although in two small instances a knowledge of the story would help.

The play was so successful at Regent’s Park that it was repeated the following year, and it promises to be just as successful in this touring production.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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