Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's production of Harper Lee's classic returns to London, this time under a roof.
Just weeks after the shooting dead of nine people in a church in South Carolina, this much-feted production of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ hits the Barbican with renewed force. Timothy Sheader’s production – originally for the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park – is as filled with charm and character as Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. Yet it shows, chillingly, that in some American states very little has changed since the events of 1936 on which Lee based the book.
The style of the evening is reminiscent of certain Shared Experience productions – there’s a deliberate self-consciousness as the cast, around 60 percent white and 40 percent black, stands before the audience, each holding battered old paperbacks of the novel. From the start, the child’s perspective prevails. Jon Bausor’s set is dominated by a tree with a tyre suspended from it to create a swing. Then, rather brilliantly, after the brief introduction, all the members of the cast get down on their hands and knees and sketch out the full plan for their village in chalk on the floor.
The spirit of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is that of a homely tight-knit community, ravaged from within by prejudice. Sheader builds this sense of close community into the structure of the production, making the entire cast take it in turns to narrate from the perspective of the central character, Scout. The tomboy Scout – played with combative charm by Ava Potter on the night Time Out reviewed – is initially dismayed by her father Atticus’s lack of machismo compared to other children’s fathers. Her coming of age is her realisation, along with the rest of the community, that his stoic insistence on rationality and humanity are the values the village must embrace in order not to tear itself apart.
Crucial to the success of any production of this book is the ability to shift the dramatic tension between the happy-go-lucky adventures of the children and the devastating trial of a black man falsely accused of rape. In this, Sheader’s production is pitch-perfect. Robert Sean Leonard is beguilingly eloquent as Atticus Finch, goaded initially by his children and then by the rest of the community for going against the grain. As the black man defended by Atticus against false accusations, Zackary Momoh is quite extraordinary, heaving with silent tears as he presents his account, while Ryan Pope is credibly raddled and shifty as his drunk accuser, Bob Ewell.
What makes this story so potent is the sense throughout that even in the most apparently civilised society, the line between playing happy families and living a tragedy is perilously thin. Sheader’s production succeeds in making us care profoundly that the story resolves itself on the right side of the line, in a world where hate and prejudice threatens daily to win the upper hand.
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An excellently staged version of a beloved classic. I was taken with the way in which they read excerpts from the novel aloud throughout - it took some getting used to, but that narration really helped to set a tone that couldn't have been replicated otherwise. The cast was fantastic, and the Barbican is an excellent venue for the production. Very pleased to have caught it when I did.