It’s amazing when you think that 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in July 1960, Harper Lee’s masterpiece has been resurrected by the Regent’s Park Theatre company’s stage adaptation which opened at Milton Keynes Theatre last night, writes Alan Wooding.
Even more amazing is the fact that a second book by the reclusive 88-year-old American author – Go Set a Watchman – only reached the public domain when it was published last month, having remained undiscovered for years, despite it having been written more than a decade before ‘Mockingbird’.
Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story is set in the deep south of the USA in the mid-1930s when racial inequality and colour prejudices were rife. However, there is optimism in the eyes of young Scout Finch (Rosie Boore) whose lawyer father Atticus Finch (Daniel Betts) agrees to defend a black man accused of raping a white girl in the sleepy Alabama town of Mayfield.
I remember seeing Gregory Peck’s portrayal as the prominent lawyer in the 1962 film when I was a first year apprentice. It also starred Brock Peters as accused rapist Tom Robinson and Mary Badham as the feisty Scout who brings new hope to the town.
As the story’s main character, Scout Finch – who lives with her widowed father and older brother Jem (Billy Price) – stands up for her beliefs and is appalled at the hatred shown by many of Macon County’s townsfolk.
While it’s a serious play it still enjoys some humorous moments with the whole story unfolding through the eyes of childhood innocence.
There’s a very strong cast with Zackary Momoh outstanding as accused rapist Tom Robinson while Ryan Pope plays a believable drunken Bob Ewell, the father of 19-year-old Mayella Ewell, the girl that Robinson has suppose to have raped.
However, the part of spectacle wearing lawyer Atticus is superbly acted by Daniel Betts who must have taken his lead from James Stewart rather than the on-screen Gregory Peck!
There is plenty of dramatic tension as most of the cast take turns at narrating straight from the pages of Harper Lee’s novel, making the play both seamless and plausible.
The actors arrive on stage holding individual dog-eared copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and they enter the deliberately sparse set – which features a large leaf-covered tree – via the auditorium before each in turn begin to read passages from the book.
While the first act is perhaps a little long-winded, it certainly sets the scene for what is to come for the audience are then treated as the trial jury in the second act as the courtroom drama burst into action under the guidance of cheroot-smoking Judge Taylor (Christopher Saul).
Also worthy of mention is Scout and Jem’s friend Dill, played on Tuesday night by Milo Panni. There are actually three sets of youngsters who take turns at playing the part of the chlldren who dare one another to knock on the reclusive Boo Radley’s front door while hiding behind his picket fence.
The Finch family’s housekeeper Calpurnia is beautifully played by Susan Lawson-Reynolds while Jamie Kenna is the Macon County sheriff responsible for bringing Tom Robinson to court.
I initially thought that Luke Porter’a playing a ukelele and singing was a little off-putting and distracting, but as the play went on, he switched to guitar (and harmonica) and his delightful finger-style picking actually added to the play’s atmosphere.
It is a really thought provoking play having been adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergal while director Timothy Schrader has ensured that everyone leaves the auditorium knowing that they have witnessed a truly memorable piece of theatre.
And if we learn anything from it, it simply brings home the fact that many of the prejudices of the 1930s are still as relevant today as they were when Harper Lee first penned To Kill a Mockingbird all those years ago.
To Kill a Mockingbird plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this Saturday (14 March) and to book your tickets over the phone call 0844 871 7652 or visit www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes – and remember that booking fees apply.