To Kill A Mockingbird
Adapted by Christopher Sergel from the novel by Harper Lee
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
The Great American Novel has featured strongly on Greater Manchester stages this year so far: the Octagon in Bolton opened with Of Mice And Men and now the Royal Exchange presents Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, both set in the Depressed 1930s.
Lee's great novel is told by young girl Scout who lives in the fictional Alabama small town of Maycomb. It focuses on her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, and his defence of black man Tom Robinson from the charge of rape against young white woman Mayella Ewell. Her father Bob Ewell is an unpleasant, violent drunk about whom no one has a good word, but he is still considered more important and trustworthy than a black man in this inherently racist community.
Alongside this main plot is the children's attempts to coax out of his house the mysterious Boo Radley, a man who has not been seen out of doors for years and consequently lots of outlandish stories have grown about him.
Lee weaves all of this together with a great deal of warmth and humour but overall with a strong sense of justice, calculated to provoke outrage in the reader, and this certainly comes across well in Christopher Sergel's adaptation.
Designer James Cotterill has provided a dusty floor with traces of straw to contain the action, using wooden posts and fencing wire to divide the space differently and wooden pallets to create a floor and platforms, which has a look of authenticity about it.
A few directorial excesses aside, this is a very strong and powerful production that played to a packed house on press night—not as common as you may think at the Royal Exchange. The fifteen-strong company (plus eight supernumaries to bulk out the crowd scenes) is convincing throughout.
Those excesses? Well, we open with Scout muttering the opening lines of the novel into a mic as a modern, local youth and gradually turning into Scout, which is technically impressive but adds nothing. We go back to the book for occasional narration, but despite being Scout's words they are generally spoken by other characters, which is odd and a bit confusing.
The songs fit the era and cover the scene changes but otherwise seem to be trying to conform to a style of performance that has become fashionable, and the unnecessary use of a skeletel puppet for the rabid dog brings it so close to Atticus that his miraculous shot isn't very impressive—War Horse has a lot to answer for.
All of this looks like a young director (Max Webster) trying to be noticed, but while it adds nothing it doesn't take anything away either and isn't necessary as his direction of the real meat of the play is very strong and perfectly paced. The ending is rather drawn out when the adaptation stops dramatising and falls back on just reading the book out, but generally the slow pace evokes the place, era and situation perfectly.
Nigel Cooke plays the slow, measured and highly-principled Atticus Finch superbly. Shannon Tarbet, who gave an award-winning performance at the Royal Exchange in Mogadishu two years ago, gives an astonishingly convincing portrayal of pre-adolescent Scout, with some very good support from Rupert Simonian as brother Jem and James McConville as friend Dill.
Kieron Jecchinis is so convincingly awful as Bob Ewell that you wouldn't want to run into him in the streets of Manchester after the show, and Scarlett Brookes is suitably pathetic as his daughter Mayella. Okezie Morro gives a calm, dignified performance as Tom Robinson, Joy Richardson is effective as the servant Calpurnia whom the children constantly defy and Simeon Truby is calmly, quietly supportive as sheriff Heck Tate. Exchange regular Jonathan Keeble gives a good dual performance as prosecution attorney Gilmer and the mysterious Boo Radley.
This all adds up to a very powerful and entertaining piece of theatre that deserved the queues at the box office and the full house. Let's hope that those tickets continue to fly out for the rest of the run, as this production should be seen by many people, not just literature students.
Reviewer: David Chadderton