THERE are three names with equal billing on the poster for this new stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s Harper Lee, the author; Aaron Sorkin, the playwright and creator of The West Wing; and the director Bartlett Sher, who has breathed new life into many old classics, including My Fair Lady.
Lee may have died only six years ago, but her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel has since become a school-curriculum cornerstone and never been out of print. This latest stage version debuted on Broadway at the end of 2018. The planned West End transfer was derailed by the pandemic, and now here it is: a thoughtful and stimulating celebration of life, literature, and theatre.
Miriam Buether’s set deploys all the tricks. Trees drop in from above, a house with full stoop porch emerges from the back, courthouse furniture slides in from the sides. A pair of musicians flank the stage throughout Sher’s sensitive direction; it’s atmospheric and convincing.
Sorkin has an unbeatable ear for dialogue and understands drama. The climactic courtroom trial has been divided to run throughout the play. He has also divided the narrator voice between the three children, which allows for more interplay and development. The puckish Scout (engagingly played by Gwyneth Keyworth) bounces around her athletic, maturing brother (wholesome Harry Redding) and the exotic next-door visitor Dill (captivating David Moorst), and this makes for an energetic trio that keeps everything moving along.
At the heart of it all is their widower father, Atticus Finch. Rafe Spall’s three-piece linen suit may nod at Gregory Peck in the 1962 film, but he makes the role entirely his own. This is an Atticus almost wrestling with his own skin colour in 1930s segregated Alabama: the small-town lawyer who is paid in vegetables, and whose faith in the justice system is undermined only by his faith in humanity.
Marc BrennerJude Owusu as Tom Robinson and John Hastings as Baliff in To Kill a Mockingbird
The two main black actors are Jude Owusu, bringing a quiet dignity to the patently wrongly condemned Tom Robinson role, balanced by Pamela Nomvete’s feisty Calpurnia. This Mockingbird doesn’t shy away from hard truths, complete with references to “the Klan” and hoods. Casual, ingrained racism is a stain on the community which the kids seem encouragingly resistant to.
This is also a piece grappling with the Trump era. The rape-accusing Mayella Ewell (Poppy Lee Friar) and her pariah father Bob (Patrick O’Kane) are snarling white supremacists, given contemporary authenticity with the language of Breitbart commenters. “That is how I was able to assure myself that I wasn’t writing about something in our distant past,” Sorkin comments in a programme note.
It is a faithful and innovative adaptation, enough to please anyone who loves the book, and brings fresh insight through the tender exploration of fatherhood in Atticus, Bob, and Tom. It is also pacey, even if the last 20 minutes sag a little with the trial concluded. Uneasy moral questions remain at the end concerning natural justice and how we excuse certain behaviour when instinct, rightly or wrongly, allows it, and how we treat our neighbour. Well worth seeing.
To Kill a Mockingbird is at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1, until 19 November. Phone 0344 482 5137. tokillamockingbird.co.uk