Benefits of playing it by the book


To Kill a Mockingbird

lyceum theatre

The appeal of Harper Lee’s classic novel seems to have been the draw that has led to near capacity houses for the week’s run in Sheffield.

Timothy Sheader’s production for Regent’s Park Theatre picks up on that with the cast walking on brandishing different editions of the book and then taking turns to read extracts which punctuate what is acted out on stage.

It tells of a smalltown lawyer in the Deep South in 1935 who is called on to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

It is a first person narrative, of course, and it takes some getting used to hear the actors’ speaking the words of Scout, the six-year-old daughter of lawyer Atticus Finch, in their own voice (and an array of British regional accents at that) and then stepping into their American characters.

But it proves to work effectively and solves the problem of placing too much burden on the role of Scout which would otherwise require an adult actor. One of the pleasures is the spirited performances of the three children (three teams will rotate throughout the week).

Daniel Betts is excellent as the stoic and courageous Atticus, calmly dealing with his duties as a single parent let alone confronting bigotry, injustice and hatred.

It’s an ensemble piece but there are particularly powerful performances in the centrepiece of the play, the courtroom trial, notably the anguished testimonies of Zackary Momoh as Tom Robinson and Victoria Bewick as Mayella Ewell, his accuser and herself a victim.

A good proportion of the audience is made up of school parties (it’s a set text for GCSE syllabuses, although not for long, but apparently it’s an urban myth that Michael Gove is to blame). The lack of restlessness and the impression of rapt attention throughout attests to the quality of this production. And the power of Harper Lee’s story, of course.

Ian Soutar