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Review: To Kill a Mocking Bird at Newcastle Theatre Royal

Harper Lee's classic tale of racial disharmony wins justified applause in a gripping stage adaptation

*****
Johan Persson A scene from To Kill a Mockingbird at the Theatre Royal
A scene from To Kill a Mockingbird at the Theatre Royal

Fifty five years after Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was first published, it remains as gripping as ever – on page and stage.

Recently fans of the first book were divided by the surprise news that a sequel, Go Set a Watchman, is to be published on July 14.

Here, though, is a timely reminder of the story it tells.

This award-winning production – an adaptation by Christopher Sergel – originated at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London.

Directed by Timothy Sheader, it deserved the rousing applause it received here on opening night.

The play opens with an almost vacant stage, save for a tyre swing hanging from a tree.

It remains throughout the first act, a symbol both of the innocence of youth and the racially-charged turmoil that is to come.

The actors bring Maycomb to life in front of our eyes from the outset, drawing a map on stage in chalk and reading excerpts directly from the novel.

Sheader uses Lee’s prose to set the scene and every one of the book’s motifs is developed and explored.

Credit is due to musician Luke Potter who faithfully recreates the everyday sounds of the Deep South with guitar and harmonica.

The success of such an ambitious venture was always going to hinge on the quality of the child acting and it emphatically delivers in this respect.

Jemima Bennett, Harry Bennett and Leo Heller shine as the characters of Scout, Jem and Dill respectively.

The triumvirate possess an entertaining dynamic on stage and the rare moments of humour in an otherwise desperate tale come in their exchanges.

But the highest praise has to be reserved for Daniel Betts, quietly magnificent as Atticus Finch, Scout’s father.

Understated yet commanding, Betts exudes the character’s morality at every turn and makes his mark on the role made famous by Gregory Peck.

The production is at it’s strongest in the climax of the courtroom trial. The stage provides the perfect platform for the scene as the plight of Tom Robinson, the man unjustly accused, unravels in mesmerising fashion.

Emotion runs high throughout but peaks just before the interval, when Scout tenderly asks questions about the mother she never knew.

As a minor aside, the conglomeration of British accents narrating did detract somewhat from the recreation of the Deep South.

But overall, we were treated to the perfect refresher ahead of the release of Go Set a Watchman in just over three months’ time.

Chris Knight

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