REVIEW: To Kill A Mockingbird, Theatre Royal, Newcastle

The children watch Tom Robinson's court case.
The children watch Tom Robinson's court case.

Rarely have I witnessed an audience so emotionally gripped as I did at the Theatre Royal last night.

You might have been able to hear a pin drop in the dramatic, tense courtroom drama that dominated the second half of this splendid production had it not been for the gentle tapping of a recorder’s typewriter that sliced through the charged atmosphere.

The majority of the audience will have known exactly what was about to happen but that made little difference to the suspense created by a totally-focused cast and an amazing adaptation of one of the most popular and studied pieces of literary work in the world.

I read Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird for my O-Level English exam many moons ago and last night I was flanked by my teenage son and daughter, who have both scrutinised the book for their GCSEs. Over the years, every phrase and nuance has been analysed to the nth degree.

I had hoped to revisit it before last night’s show but time retraints meant I went in almost blind. As the plot unravelled, though, the memories came flooding back and I was soon engrossed in this multi-layered tale set in small-town America in 1933-35, during the Great Depression.

Lee’s only published work to date (although a sequel is due out in July this year), which still sells nearly a million copies a year, deals with the racism she observed as a child in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama. But it also encompasses many of the facets of a child’s passage into adulthood. Mockingbird spawned some of the greatest literary characters – Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, Scout and Tom Robinson – and was made into a film, starring Gregory Peck, in 1962.

Jemima Bennett stars as Scout, Harry Bennett as Jem and Leo Heller as Dill.

Jemima Bennett stars as Scout, Harry Bennett as Jem and Leo Heller as Dill.

Timothy Sheader’s production for The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is appropriately and stunningly simple, from the basic set and ubiquitous tree with tyre swing to Luke Potter’s musical accompaniment on harmonica and guitar – it’s almost Shakespearean in its structure. And for those fans of the novel who are concerned it may not be true to Lee’s original, fear not, the cast actually read passages directly from the book as if to pay homage to the author’s story-telling prowess and at the end they hold their different editions aloft to the biggest cheer of the night.

They narrate in their British accents before switching to a southern American drawl for the characters.

Daniel Betts is under-statedly assured in the role of Atticus, the lawyer asked to take on the hopeless case of black man Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping white woman Mayella Ewell in a racially-divided community. These two protagonists were portrayed beautifully by Zackary Momoh and local lass Victoria Bewick in a court battle that knocks spots off Rumpole of the Bailey!

Three alternating trios of youngsters melt the hearts as Atticus’ children Scout and Jem, and visiting friend Dill. Last night, it was the turn of brother-and-sister team Jemima and Harry Bennett and Leo Heller to give spellbinding performances that were both funny and tear-jerking in equal measure.

Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Miss Maudie, in To Kill A Mockingbird (by Harper Lee)

The supporting cast, including Christopher Akrill as Boo, Ryan Pope as the thoroughly unpleasant Bob Ewell, Natalie Grady as Miss Maudie and Christopher Saul as Judge Taylor, all did their bit to build the tension and have us on the edge of seats.

The staging was very clever too – it started with the cast drawing a child-like map of the town across the entire stage with chalk and as the play progressed over it, the lines became smudged, acting as a metaphor for the blurred lines between childhood and adulthood. I have to admit, it took my son to point out that one – back to school for me!

The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of To Kill A Mockingbird runs at Theatre Royal Newcastle until Saturday, April 25. The show is virtually a sell-out but an extra matinee is being staged tomorrow (Wednesday, April 22). For ticket availability, call the box office on 08448 112121 or log on to www.theatreroyal.co.uk