Writer: Harper Lee
Adaptor: Christopher Sergel
Director: Elizabeth Newman
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prizewinning novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and quickly became a literary classic, achieving both immediate and continued success throughout the decades that followed. It resulted in an on Oscar-winning film adaptation soon after in 1962, however, it took playwright Christoper Sergel considerably longer to adapt the novel for the stage, beginning in 1970 but continuing to revise it for another 20 years.
Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, a period of widespread racial prejudice and segregation, Lee invites readers into the fictional southern town of Maycomb and draws upon her own experiences growing up with her lawyer father in Monroeville, Alabama. Told from the perspective of schoolgirl Jean Louise Finch nicknamed ‘Scout’ To Kill a Mockingbird follows her father Atticus Finch as he sets out to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who stands accused of raping a white woman.
One of the joys of child narrators is the differing perspective they offer simply by questioning the things adults take for granted. Scout does exactly this in a spirited performance from Lucy Doyle Ryder who approaches everything with an abundance of curiosity and courage. Sergel’s stage adaptation centres around an adult Scout, looking back on the events that shaped her childhood with the insight and clarity that can only be borne out of experience. As the adult Jean Louise Finch, Barbara Drennan immediately engages the audience in the narration-heavy opening and offers a poignant performance throughout, observing events unfold as she gradually loses the innocence and naivete of a child.
There are stellar performances from the whole cast; Leila Mimmack’s abused Mayella manages to be both fierce and fragile, Harry Long’s Bob Ewell grows increasingly menacing and Marc Small has a quiet dignity as the wronged Tom Robinson. The trio of children (Joshua Nicholls, Matthew Howells and the aforementioned Lucy Doyle Ryder) look assured and confident on stage and hold heir own among the professional ensemble.
Best of all, however, is Rob Edwards as Atticus Finch, who embodies the warmth and compassion of the character towards his children and the passionate resolve Finch brings to the courtroom. Elizabeth Newman directs the production in the round, which proves an effective configuration for the play, particularly during the courtroom scenes in which one is encouraged to feel like a member of the jury or public gallery. Amanda Stoodley’s design transports the Bolton audience to 1930s America with a sand covered floor and wooden platforms that can be converted from front porches to fixtures of the court.
The adaptation condenses the action primarily to 1935 and the courtroom drama takes up much of Sergel’s script with the friendship and adventures of the children prior to this losing some of Lee’s detail. There is an increasing sense of foreboding and danger as the play continues, however, the climactic sequence is a little chaotic, leading to a conclusion that feels slightly rushed.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful piece of theatre however, that entertains, educates and challenges its audience. It is clear that Harper Lee’s story is timeless and Atticus’s advice, that in order to truly understand a person one should ‘climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it’, is as pertinent a message as ever. This thoughtprovoking production encourages the audience to leave with this very much in mind, to evaluate individual and societal prejudices and eventually consign the hatred and division prevalent in Maycomb, Alabama to the past for good.
Runs until 15 October 2016 | Image: Contributed