Mockingbird soars anew… thanks to Sorkin and sensational Spall: PATRICK MARMION reviews the latest stage production of To Kill A Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird (Gielgud Theatre, London)
Verdict: Killer Mockingbird!
You can’t ask much more of Aaron Sorkin‘s blistering adaptation of Harper Lee’s tragic tale of racial injustice in 1930s Alabama. Bartlett Sher’s production was a huge hit on Broadway and it looks like doing the same kind of business in the West End.
And so it should, because this is a spellbinding show, led by Rafe Spall as the small-town lawyer defending a young black man who has been maliciously accused of rape.
The brilliance of Sorkin’s adaptation is that it makes Lee’s 62-year-old literary classic feel like it was minted yesterday. Far from creaking like a period piece, it chimes with modern racial conflicts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nor does it pull its punches with issues of rape, violence and strongly racist language. The upshot is a riveting drama that often reduces the audience to pin-drop silence.
Rafe Spall as lawyer Atticus Finch and Poppy Lee Friar as Mayella Ewell
Best seat in the house
Disciples of Benedict Cumberbatch can see his Dane from the comfort of their own sofas in Lyndsey Turner’s 2015 Barbican Theatre production.
Just go to Amazon Prime and select Great British Theatre Series 1.
Were it not for Spall’s resolutely decent lawyer Atticus Finch, much of this internecine social conflict might have proved indigestible. Respectful of others to a fault, Spall’s Atticus is also sharp and self-aware.
As a single dad who lost his wife, he wins our admiration thanks to his gift for conflict resolution with his angry son, Jem, and tomboy daughter, Scout.
But the pride he takes in his off-white linen suit, round specs and carefully parted curls, lends him dignity and status, too.
Another great innovation of Sorkin’s play is how it makes Atticus squirm in his moral dilemma as a middle-class liberal nervous of seeming patrician. For this, he is held to account by Pamela Nomvete as his tight-lipped housekeeper, Calpurnia. It’s a role greatly expanded from the book, as is the character of hapless defendant Tom Robinson. A young black man reviled for presuming to have sympathy for an abused young white girl, he is played with grace and vulnerability by Jude Owusu.
No less significant is the way Patrick O’Kane steers his Ku Klux Klan antagonist Bob Ewell away from being a swivel-eyed straw target. Yet still he burns with white fury at the condescension meted out by what he sees as an institutional conspiracy. Parallels with today’s white supremacists are precisely drawn, as is the fate of his bitterly conflicted daughter, Mayella (Poppy Lee Friar), whom we dare not disbelieve.
Most remarkable, in a story that boils with tension, is how the staging matches the drive of courtroom drama with the populous variety of Lee’s novel.
Most remarkable, in a story that boils with tension, is how the staging matches the drive of courtroom drama with the populous variety of Lee’s novel
Gwyneth Keyworth and Harry Redding, as Atticus’s children Scout and Jem, are our childlike eyes and ears on this world; along with David Moorst as their summer friend Dill, who masks heartbreaking insecurity with endless chatter.
Jim Norton is a wry and benign presence as the trial judge who keeps hope of justice alive in the face of ingrained prejudice.
Similarly, Lloyd Hutchinson, as the supposed town drunk, Link Deas, has his own story that opens up a whole new vista of toxicity and redemption.
The fact that Sher’s production can pull so much together is thanks partly to Sorkin’s Hollywood-tight script, peppered with great one-liners.
But it’s also thanks to Miriam Buether’s set that effortlessly transforms from courtroom and domestic interiors to verandahs and backyards.
So much goes right in this exceptional production that it’s quite simply a killer Mockingbird.
Horrors of war shatter the peace
Private Peaceful (Touring)
Verdict: The price of brotherly love
Children’s author Michael Morpurgo’s novel tells of two brothers who are caught up in a battle in which the pitiless English squirearchy, a sadistic Army sergeant and the casually careless military authorities prove more lethal than invading Germans.
Adaptor Simon Reade’s moving memory play starts at the end, with Daniel Rainford’s baby-faced Private ‘Tommo’ Peaceful recalling his life before his scheduled execution for alleged cowardice.
Daniel Rainford as Private ‘Tommo’ Peaceful recalling his life before his scheduled execution for alleged cowardice
Above Elle While’s beautifully lit production hangs a tangle of wire, suggesting the Devon clouds, the barbed wire and the mangled minds and bodies of young soldiers, blown to blazes by the terrors of the Great War.
In a darker second half, the lads shelter in rat-infested trenches before being sent to their slaughter.
The symbolism is a mite crude and there is too much broad character-acting going on, but this show soars and sings when the doomy hum of war is broken by folksongs and hymns, vividly rooting it in a place and a time.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Touring)
Verdict: Jukebox heaven
The ordinary yet extraordinary Carole King (Molly-Grace Cutler) bounds into a Brooklyn song factory and pitches It Might As Well Rain Until September.
Music producer Don Kirschner knew gold when he heard it.
Aged 16, with lyricist Gerry Goffin, Carole proceeds to pop out much of the soundtrack to the 50s and 60s . . . plus a couple of kids.
And having made the whole world sing, King finds her own voice (cue A Natural Woman).
While Douglas McGrath’s deliciously corny, cheesy, schmaltzy jukebox biog stops short of soul-searching, director Nikolai Foster and a cast of super-versatile actor-musicians make the earth move under your feet when The Drifters and The Shirelles bop their way through Up On the Roof and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.
Carole’s friend, Barry Mann — the songwriter who ‘put the bomp’ behind his wife Cynthia Weil’s sassy lyrics — provides the excuse for The Righteous Brothers’ classic You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and more.
Some kind of wonderful, indeed.
Home truths in the Chicago suburbs
Clybourne Park (Park Theatre)
Verdict: Uneasy comedy of manners
Imogen Stubbs aches as the bereaved mother masking her loss with a frenzy of activity
Hard as it is to love a play about racism, director Oliver Kaderbhai reinvigorates Bruce Norris’s 2010 comic drama set in a Chicago suburb of the 1950s and today. In an impressively choreographed new production, he turns the story into a kind of ballet of American manners.
The first half features a couple who’ve lost their son in the Korean War and horrify their white neighbours by selling their home to a black family.
After the interval, we are at a residents’ planning meeting in the same house, 50 years later, with the neighbourhood subject to gentrification.
Imogen Stubbs aches as the bereaved mother masking her loss with a frenzy of activity; while her husband (Richard Lintern) is a brooding, explosive enigma. Aliyah Odoffin brings resignation to their black servant and, later, to the young woman seeking to preserve local history.
Kaderbhai cleverly presents all this as a ceremony of time, showing how our dearest preoccupations and most strongly felt indignations just come and go.