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Review of To Kill a Mockingbird at The Gielgud Theatre

The audience is kept engaged in this production of To Kill A Mockingbird, which has three narrators, Scout Finch (Gwyneth Keyworth), her older brother Jim (Harry Redding) and their friend Dill Harris (David Moorst). At times it feels as though there is as much exposition as there is dramatization, and the regular direct addresses to the audience gives the show a Jersey Boys sort of feel. The youngsters tell us the salient parts of the storyline in order to focus on certain other parts. At face value, this results in uneven pacing, but the audience is nonetheless taken on a compelling journey. As I was told during the interval on press night, Harper Lee’s estate sued the playwright, Aaron Sorkin, as the script included changes to the plot and characters that were not to their liking. The then producer, Scott Rudin, had several controversies that eventually led to him having to leave the show.

Jude Owusu (Tom Robinson) - photo by Marc Brenner.
Jude Owusu (Tom Robinson) – photo by Marc Brenner.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a well-known story: the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962, and a year later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the motion picture adaptation three of its coveted Oscars, with Gregory Peck winning Best Actor. Not everyone in Britain who knows the story is familiar with it out of choice, with the novel being a staple of English literature school curriculums for years. As far as this theatrical adaptation is concerned, it plays to the gallery somewhat, and (rather like the book) has its stereotypes. Bob Ewell (Patrick O’Kane) is the aggressive bully who thinks he can always and forever get his own way through confrontation, while Dill is the nice but dim guy who can’t, apparently, ever see the wood for the trees.

Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete), the Finch family’s housekeeper (though she is much more than that), provides a perspective that even the broad-minded and progressive Atticus (Rafe Spall) couldn’t quite rise to. Atticus’ life philosophy, built on being respectful to everybody – ‘everybody’ meaning absolutely everybody – is challenged to an extent when Jem finally retaliates against the perennially obnoxious Mrs Henry Dubose (Amanda Boxer). But it’s ‘Cal’, as Atticus calls her, who really calls him out on his Pollyanna-style positivity: there comes a point when respecting people who are downright disgraceful is itself disrespectful to those who have been wronged.

The perceptiveness of such thoughts is what makes the show much more than a courtroom drama with a subplot about a lawyer’s family life. There’s plenty of humour, too – Atticus is far from the only person who can bring drama to courtroom proceedings. The story is not told in chronological order, at least not entirely, and the set (Miriam Buether) changes impressively quickly from the courthouse to the Finch family home, and back again. It’s not always comfortable viewing – Poppy Lee Friar’s Mayella Ewell is evidently traumatised by being cross-examined as well as her personal circumstances, there’s a highly liberal (if equally highly historically accurate) use of the N-word, and an extraordinary miscarriage of justice despite overwhelming evidence of Tom Robinson’s (Jude Owusu) innocence.

What’s harrowing, of course, is that while much has changed since 1934, the production is keen to point out what hasn’t. It’s not exactly subtle about it either, underlining its points in a way that is probably more suited to Broadway audiences than West End ones. Interestingly, there are chairs set out for the jury in the courthouse, but the seats are never occupied. I initially thought that was rather absurd, but then I had a flashbulb moment on the Tube home: the production treats the audience as the ’jury’ and invites it to make their own minds up based on the witness accounts presented. A slick and imaginative production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Set in Maycomb, Alabama in 1934, To Kill a Mockingbird has provided American literature with some of its most indelible characters: lawyer Atticus Finch, the tragically wronged Tom Robinson, Atticus’ daughter Scout, her brother Jem, their housekeeper and caretaker Calpurnia and the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley. For the past six decades and for every generation, this story, its characters and portrait of small-town America have helped to, and continue to, inspire conversation and change.

Harper Lee’s enduring story of racial injustice and childhood innocence has sold more than 45 million copies of the novel worldwide. 2020 marked the 60th anniversary of its publication.

Joining Sher and the original Broadway creative team – Miriam Buether (Set), Ann Roth (Costume), Jennifer Tipton (Lighting), Scott Lehrer (Sound), Adam Guettel (Original Score), Kimberly Grigsby (Music Supervision) and Campbell Young Associates (Hair & Wigs) – are Serena Hill as Casting Director, Hazel Holder as Voice & Dialect Coach, Titas Halder as Associate Director, Rasheka Christie-Carter as Assistant Director, Tavia Rivée Jefferson as Cultural Coordinator, and Candida Caldicot as Musical Director.

Harry Attwell plays Mr Cunningham/Boo Radley.
Amanda Boxer plays Mrs Henry Dubose.
Poppy Lee Friar plays Mayella Ewell.
John Hastings plays Bailiff.
Simon Hepworth plays Mr Roscoe/Dr Reynolds.
Laura Howard plays Miss Stephanie/Dill’s Mother.
Lloyd Hutchinson plays Link Deas.
Gwyneth Keyworth plays Scout Finch.
Tom Mannion plays Sheriff Tate.
David Moorst plays Dill Harris.
Pamela Nomvete plays Calpurnia.
Jim Norton plays Judge Taylor.
Patrick O’Kane plays Bob Ewell.
Jude Owusu plays Tom Robinson.
Harry Redding makes his professional stage debut playing Jem Finch.
Rafe Spall plays Atticus Finch.
David Sturzaker plays Horace Gilmer.
Natasha Williams plays Mrs Dubose’s Maid.

Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6AR

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