There were just two plays in last summer’s Open Air Theatre season: a grimly post-industrial take on the musical ‘Ragtime’ and a glum ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, set in a car-park. It rained a lot, which seemed appropriate.
So it’s a relief to report that after last year’s gloomy rep adventures, things are back on track with Timothy Sheader’s riveting and sympathetic production of Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s civil rights classic, starring ‘House’s Robert Sean Leonard as Southern attorney Atticus Finch.
‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is, above all, a book about childhood, told from the perspective of a child protagonist, Atticus’s daughter Scout. It is also a book that most of us come into contact with at school, and thus intrinsically linked to our own childhoods, no matter how removed they may be from Lee’s vignettes of smalltown life in segregated ‘30s Alabama.
This is something Sheader’s production is sensitive to: Scout’s ‘narration’ is provided by the British cast, who take turns reading from battered school copies of Lee’s book in their natural accents; the set is an expanse of black tarmac, with the houses of the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama scrawled on in chalk, like a school blackboard; most importantly, the child cast is top notch.
On press night Izzy Lee’s Scout had rangy, tomboyish charisma to spare; Harry Bennett nailed Dill as a cocky kid with an alluring loneliness; and Adam Scotland was great as Scout’s more emotional, vulnerable older brother Jem. There’s the odd bit of accent slippage, but the chemistry compensates. These three are the perfect child gang, and it is rare that we feel we’re seeing events through anything other than their eyes.
The exception is the lengthy courtroom scene that dominates the second half. And that’s just fine, because it’s here that imported US star Leonard comes into his own as ultra-decent attorney Finch, defending Richie Campbell’s black worker Tom Robinson from a bogus rape charge that he will clearly never beat. The shadow of Gregory Peck in the 1962 film version looms large, but it’s entirely to Leonard’s credit that he basically channels Peck’s charismatic Southern gentleman successfully, then adds his own slight spin – a little more awkward, a little more vulnerable, a little more human.
It’s easy enough to bring home ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’s moral and sociological dimension – and Sheader’s production does that. But its real triumph is in capturing the novel's warmth and childish wonder.
By Andrzej Lukowski