REVIEW: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Gielgud Theatre)

I love Aaron Sorkin. That’s probably an inappropriate opening to a review of an adaptation of his. Nevertheless, ‘The West Wing’ changed my life, I love Aaron Sorkin, and I feel I should disclose this before proceeding.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a modern classic. Most children in the western world read or study it at some point during their education. I think I did, though to be honest my school days are now so distant that I no longer remember.

Sorkin, whose rise to fame came in no small part due to ‘A Few Good Men’ on Broadway, is on familiar territory here with his adaptation which distributes the courtroom drama throughout the play. Scout (Gwyneth Keyworth), the narrator in the novel, shares that role here with her brother Jem (Harry Redding) and the precociously wise and erudite Dill (a wonderfully nuanced performance by David Moorst). The three of them, though adult actors, convincingly embody the youthful energy required and drive the action along pleasingly.

Rafe Spall takes on the role of the enobled Atticus Finch, a role in many ways defined by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film version but made anew here in Spall’s accessible, everyman style. Convinced that there is good at the heart of every person, and with a seemingly indefatigable belief that justice will prevail, he takes on the case of James Robinson (Jude Owusu), an African American accused of rape, despite obvious and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.

With the novel so widely read, I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Atticus’ belief in justice and the goodness within people is profoundly challenged in the piece and as the play proceeds we witness the cost of sticking to his mantra “to respect all people”, even when they’re hateful.

With the death of George Floyd and the BLM movement so fresh in the memory, this adaptation calls on the audience to assess their own anti-racism. Sure, Atticus Finch advocates for a wronged black man, but how much does he challenge the beliefs and narratives of those he is surrounded by? And can the defence of one person justify Atticus’ chosen ignorance against so many other injustices, explicit or otherwise.

There is no weak link amongst this cast, though particularly worthy of note are Patrick O’Kane who lends the role of Bob Yewell a visceral grotesqueness and his daughter Mayella (played by Poppy Lee Friar) who manages to elicit both pity and hatred in equal measure. The sparse but effective design by Miriam Buether easily evokes the US Deep South of the thirties and US theatrical super director Bartlett Sheer has marshalled a tight and economical production that never feels self indulgent.

At over two and half hours with an interval, it’s testament to both the source material and the adaptation that far from dragging, the evening passes quickly with not a single furtive glance at my watch. However, although Sorkin could hardly change the ending of seminal book, I did feel that the play ended on a somewhat lacklustre note – never quite landing the emotional punch I felt it could and should have.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is arguably the greatest and most popular novel of the twentieth century and with this adaptation, Sorkin has definitely done it justice. All Rise!

★★★★

Jody Tranter