Classic brought to glorious life

Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch

Daniel Betts as lawyer Atticus Finch with Victoria Bewick as Mayella Ewell, Tom Robinson's accuser, sitting behind. Pictures: Johan Persson

To Kill a Mockingbird

The New Alexandra Theatre

*****

EVERY so often there comes along a production which is a sheer joy to watch for its invention, its wonderful acting and its outstanding quality and this is just such a creation.

It opens with the cast flooding down the aisles, but instead of launching into a play it opens with the cast of 16 in a reading of Harper Lee’s celebrated book of racial, and a few other prejudices in the small fictional town Maycomb, Alabama, in the deep south of America.

Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, where her father was a lawyer who had defended two black men accused of murder – both were hanged.

The book is set between 1933 and 1935, three years when 57 back people, out of 61, had been lynched in the USA, mostly in the southern states. It was a time when any black man or woman accused of a crime by a white person was usually found guilty, no matter what the evidence.

And it is into that world that attorney Atticus Finch takes on the case of Tom Robinson, a black field hand accused of rape.

Finch, sensitively played by Daniel Betts, is the voice of reason in the town, who believes in always looking at every problem from the other person’s point of view as well as his own.

It is a philosophy he instils in his two children, Scout, played by Rosie Boore and Jem, Billy Price, who are joined by friend Dill, played by Milo Panni. Dill incidentally is said to be based on Lee's friend from childhood, Truman Capote.

The trio of youngsters are one of three teams playing the roles, and were just magnificent, particularly young MissRom Robinson Boore, making her professional debut.

Acting is a hard profession, 85 per cent of its members are out of work at any one time, but the trio have placed a talented foot on the ladder and only time, and luck, will see how far they climb.

Keeping the children in line is the maid Calpurnia, played in bustling style by Susan Lawson-Reynolds while the accused is Tom Robinson, played in the servile, hunted way of a man fearing for his life, by Zackary Momoh. Eighty years after the abolition of slavery Tom is still enslaved by prejudice and poverty.

The accused: Tom Robinson, played by Zachary Momoh

His accuser is Mayella Ewell, played witch a vacant look and equally vacant mind by Victoria Bewick.

Mayella is 19, with no schooling, or indeed anything much else to speak of. The eldest of eight children, and not one of nature’s gifted intellectuals, she is under the thumb, or perhaps more accurately, the fist of her town drunk of a father Bob, played with a mix of menace, racial hatred and stupidity by Ryan Pope.

The Ewells, are bottom of the pile socially and economically in the town, so the black community down the road are the only people around they can look down upon.

But despite the rock bottom reputation of the Ewells they are white folks and the alleged rapist is black, so, whatever the evidence, Atticus Finch knows from the start he is on a loser, but fights on because he believes it is the right thing to do. To atticus all men are equal when it came to a court of law.

It was a position that made his character, fictional though it was, a beacon for the civil rights movement and indeed the more idealistic end of the legal profession.

His only supporters appear to be neighbour Maudie, Natalie Gradie along with the Sherriff, Heck Tate, played by Jamie Kennan and Judge Taylor, played by Christopher Saul. Up against him in court is Mr Gilmer, played by David Carlyle, the dapper prosecutor whose gentle questioning of the less than reliable Ewells contrasted with his verbal attacks on Tom, going far beyond his adversarial duties,leave little doubt that justice is not a primary concern in such cases.

The cast of 16 , who sit at the sides of the stage, appear as various characters, or walk on clutching the novel to give us readings to move the plot along as we go through an attempted lynching and follow the parallel tale of Boo Radley, played by Christoper Akrill, who has been hidden away in his home for years after some mysterious legal trouble in the past that no one talks about – another form of prejudice explored in the play.

Through it all we have some fine atmospheric music composed, played and sung by Phil King on guitar, harmonica and ukulele – he has a couple of CDs which are worth looking out for.

The acting is only part of this production though. Jon Bausor’s setting of a three sided box surrounded by rusting corrugated panels, which changed colour, part of Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design, added atmosphere, setting the scene for a run down town – the cast even have to chalk in the location of houses in the town on the floor at the start, something lost a little in the stalls.

Director Timothy Sheader has taken Christopher Sergel’s 1990 stage adaptation and turned it into an easy to follow piece of theatre that breaks convention and mixes readings and dramatic scenes with a tremendous effect.

The courtroom scene is both sad and poignant as Atticus makes his plea for justice, for reason and for humanity on behalf of a black man to the unseen jury, who sit beyond the stage, somewhere above the audience. It all falls on deaf ears.

The play is funny, sad and immensely moving. There are no TV soap stars, no big names, no flashy special effects or big budget sets. The story is the star, as it should be, and the superb cast tell it quite beautifully with accents that never falter – this is quite simply theatre of the highest quality. To 29-11-14

Roger Clarke

25-11-14 

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