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To Kill a Mockingbird (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: To Kill a Mockingbird

Society: West End & Fringe

Venue: The Gielgud Theatre. Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6AR

Credits: By Harper Lee, adapted by Aaron Sorkin

To Kill a Mockingbird

3 stars

All photos: Marc Brenner

When a novel is as well loved and known as Harper Lee’s 1960 groundbreaker, the dramatiser has a difficult job because he or she will never please everyone and the Lee estate sued over this version so it took several years to make it to the stage. You cannot follow any novel slavishly and we’re used to the Christopher Sergel adaptation, approved by Lee, which uses child actors and stresses the piece’s literary origins.

Aaron Sorkin does something quite different. He flips the plot so that we start at the trial of Tom Robinson for rape, uses it as the glue that the piece keeps coming back to and unravels most of the plot in flashbacks narrated by Scout (Gwyneth Keyworth). He also does his level best to update the piece. After all, the issues of racism and assumed white privilege are still very much with us. Most of the gratingly, shockingly anti-black lines Sorkin gives to Bob Newell (Patrick O’Kane) are, for example, actually quotes from things said recently in opposition to Black Lives Matter. As a way of pointing up the ongoing topicality of this profoundly shocking story it works reasonably well, although it’s difficult for anyone who knows Harper Lee’s novel well. You have to keep sternly reminding yourself that this play is an original work in its own right.

I’m generally doubtful about casting adults in child roles but, of course, it’s much cheaper because you don’t have to spend hours rehearsing three rotating teams. And I have to say that Keyworth is pretty convincing as Scout. She has a way with mutinous looks and body language through which smiles often break like the sun coming out. She also commands the stage whenever she’s downstage narrating – addressing the audience – and manages to blend childishness with maturing insights. Apart from anything else the piece is about Scout’s development. It might, less memorably but accurately, have been titled “What Scout Learns” and Keyworth makes that growth very clear.

Also strong, among others, are Jude Owusu whose Tom Robinson is quietly dignified and David Moorst as the vulnerable, wordy but funny Dil.

The beating heart of this show though is Rafe Spall as Atticus – the lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape – whose glittering performance is what most people will remember about this production. He finds all the warmth, passion and intelligence that the character needs. And there are some good scenes, way beyond anything Harper Lee wrote, with the family ‘maid’, Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete). His closing speech at the trial is a master-class in acting. Spall also gives Atticus a sardonic ruefulness which is all his own. I’m sure he will be up for awards very soon.

There’s a large and business-like ensemble (with musical director Candida Caldicot on stage throughout as organist in frock and cloche hat) behind all this action and a lot of small roles which are understated so it isn’t always clear who they are or why they matter. Some of these tiny scenes could arguably be trimmed. As it is the show runs for three hours.

A tick, though, for Miriam Buether’s set. The show began life on Broadway (2018) and adapting to a smaller stage has not, I gather been easy. I like the way most of the Gielgud’s Victorian proscenium is encased in hot, atmospheric clapper board. Thereafter there’s nifty work with switches from court room to the porch of Atticus’s house. It’s neatly done.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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