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 present the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production
Sheffield Lyceum

Daniel Betts (Atticus), Christopher Saul (Walter Cunningham), Jemima Bennett (Scout), Ryan Pope (Bob Ewell) Credit: Johan Persson

Harper Lee’s only novel takes as its inspiration an event that took place in the small town of Monroeville in Alabama, where she grew up in the 1930s. A white woman accuses a black man of rape. Although the man is undoubtedly innocent, he is tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

Lee uses this real-life story as a means of exploring small-town bigotry, deep-seated racial prejudice, the collusion of a whole community in injustice and lynch mob mentality.

In contrast, Lee’s main character, lawyer Atticus Finch, makes a courageous stand against injustice, despite placing himself and his children at risk, and incidentally displays a remarkable liberal consciousness towards other pejoratised members of the community, telling his daughter, "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his (sic) point of view".

The novel is adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, and relies heavily on narration drawn from the novel, which in this production is voiced, not by Atticus’s young daughter, Scout, but by a team of actors, who also play a range of subsidiary roles.

Director Timothy Sheader is currently co-running a story-telling programme called Pin Drop, which is committed to reviving the tradition of reading aloud and sharing stories.

Consequently, the narrators read from the novel, in a variety of English accents, which sit uncomfortably with the American setting of the play, provide limited opportunities for eye contact, and have a distancing effect on a play in which empathy is all important.

The first half of the play introduces a range of characters, who will be important in the later action, and provides an opportunity for Atticus to present his liberal attitudes and instruct his children in greater understanding of others less fortunate than themselves. There is nothing preachy about this.

A particularly effective scene is when Atticus accepts a gift of turnip leaves from an impoverished farmer (convincingly played by Christopher Saul) in lieu of legal work previously provided.

Atticus’s vigil outside the courthouse, where Tom Robinson (Zachary Momoh) is being held in custody prior to trial, is a powerful scene, where action is allowed full reign, without narrative intervention.

The second half is dominated by the brilliantly written trial scene. This is entirely gripping, with outstanding performances from Daniel Betts as Atticus and Zachary Momoh as Tom.

Ryan Pope is suitably repulsive as the uncontrollably violent, deeply racist Bob Ewell, and Victoria Bewick, as his abused daughter Mayella who has broken the social code in attempting to seduce Tom, is revealed as a pathetic, lonely, brutalised young woman, who is prepared to let Tom die, rather than admit her complicity in the event.

The courtroom is outraged when Tom says he felt sorry for her. How dare a negro feel sorry for a white woman!

This is very much an ensemble production with strong performances throughout, including the children, Rosie Boore, Billy Price and Milo Panni on the evening I saw it.

The production was originally designed for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, with actors, set and props in full view throughout, set changes by cast members, and music links provided by Phil King.

There are occasional sight line problems on the Lyceum stage when actors are seated on the steps at the front of the set or ‘off stage’ to the side, but still, as in the court scene, involved in the action.

The novel is currently on the GCSE syllabus. The large number of students attending will find this production a helpful addition to the text.

Reviewer: Velda Harris