Powerful drama still hits home

Lawyer Atticus Finch, Duncan Preston, explains a point to his young daughter Scout, Grace Rowe

To Kill a Mocking Bird

Wolverhampton Grand

**** 

HARPER Lee's 1960 novel set in Alabama in 1935 is a powerful and lasting indictment of racial inequality and bigotry in the Deep South.

That message comes over loud and clear in this 41 year-old stage adaptation which provides Duncan Preston, (Stan from Dinnerladies) with a second chance to play Atticus Finch, the hero lawyer.

Preston, who is superb, played Finch in another adaptation with the same Touring Consortium Theatre Company four years ago and the company are on their third bite at this particularly bitter cherry.

Not that it is an obsession, the company was formed to perform works on the exam curriculum and the Pulitzer Prize winner is a school regular ticking more boxes than a Littlewoods' perm.

The play centres around Atticus taking on the defence of black field hand Tom Robinson played with quiet, understated dignity by Cornelius Macarthy.

Robinson has been accused of rape by a jobless, worthless drunk called Bob Ewell and Mark White cleverly shows that to Ewell, and indeed the townsfolks of Maycomb, Alabama, being bottom of the white pile still puts you above any black man. White lies will always trump a black truth.

Ewell has seen Tom with his somewhat less than genius level daughter, Mayella, played with a delicious unhinged paranoia by Clare Corbett, and sets in motion a trial that will ultimately cost both men their lives.

IMPASSIONED

The trial is the centrepiece of both the book and the play and comes either side of the interval with Preston convincing in his impassioned closing argument to the jury. It would take a bigot among bigots to even consider any of the Ewell's evidence had even the most tenuous hold on the truth but in the Deep South of 1935 all black men were guilty and all you needed to do was select a crime.

To get to the trial though is a slow journey. The book uses Atticus's young daughter Scout, played by the excellent Grace Rowe, as the narrator and she is still a central figure as she and older brother Jem (Matthew Pattimore) and their friend Dill (Graeme Dalling) act out their lives around the trial in a set of white skeletal clapperboard walls and fences.

But Christopher Sergel's 1970 adaptation adds another element with a grown up Scout, Jean Louise Finch, played by Jacqueline Wood, as narrator in a sort of memory play recalling the events.

It perhaps helped set the scene a little at the start and although Wood cannot be faulted in the role it became less and less relevant and even distracting as the night wore on.

The opening, with the use of a video wall supposedly emphasising that these were memories revisited, is slow and at times confusing as a picture is built up of friends and neighbours, particularly Arthur Boo Radley, played by Matthew Rixon.

MYSTERIOUS RECLUSE

He is a mysterious recluse who is never seen– until one pivotal dramatic scene – and who provides an endless source of speculation, amusement and fear for the children.

The trial is the highlight and Atticus not only has to defend Tom, he, along with his children, has to prevent a lynching before the trial even starts.

Once the trial ends though the pace goes back to the slow life of rural Alabama and despite Ewell being a homicidal loose cannon, there is little in the way of tension created to lead to the dramatic finale.

Not that the play lack's atmosphere. Christopher Madin's music, all bluesy slide guitar, helps build a feeling of humid, oppressive heat where even life slows down.

The book, despite its subject matter, is full of warmth and humour. The Finches were a happy family if a bit on the homespun side and not much of that comes out in the play, as for accents . . .

Rural America has never been a happy linguistic hunting ground for touring companies. To be fair most are passable, some, the less obviously strong in the main, are more than acceptable but some scenes and words are lost amid Southern drawls.

The play runs longer than the celebrated 1962 film and perhaps would have been helped by a little judicious pruning and moving up a gear in pace but the 21-strong cast and a strong story carry you along – even if it is at a pace Miss Daisy would approve of. To 21-05-11.

Roger Clarke

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