To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lowry, May 19th-2rd
To Kill a Mockingbird is everybody’s favourite novel. Well maybe not everybody’s, but you know what I’m getting at. The most studied book on the planet, a feature on more English lit curriculums than any other work of fiction, and a novel that has survived far longer in the canon than many of its contemporaries, Harper Lee’s only novel (to date) is inarguably one of the most influential pieces of literature to ever be put down on paper. It’s a masterpiece. And its story still resonates today.
When any work is so admired, be it a book, a film, a play, or a painting, it can be a dangerous decision to adapt it to another medium or in a different style. In just the last few months we’ve seen this at The Lowry with versions of A Farewell to Arms, Rebecca, The Woman in Black, and King Lear all falling flat through their attempts to make too many changes or alter the tone. So it was kind of refreshing when Christopher Sergel’s version of To Kill a Mockingbird opened with the actors holding copies of the book in their hands and reading straight from the pages. This, it seemed, would be an adaptation that stuck to the format of the brilliant original.
For once in this latest season at The Lowry, there were to be no surprises. Perhaps the biggest innovation of the night was the fact that passages from the book were read out all the way through the performance, interspersed throughout the action. With such a powerful story, no further innovation is needed. And it actually worked as a wonderful addition. It was a little like those times your parents read to you as children, lulling you into a feeling of relaxation that allowed the real message of the story to seep in almost unnoticed. It also allowed Harper Lee’s words, which were funny, observant, and occasionally heartbreaking, to remain as one of the key narrative drivers.
So. For anyone who doesn’t know the plot, or anyone who lives under a rock, here’s a brief outline. Scout is the voice of the novel. A young girl just beginning to understand the world around her, she has to quickly face up to some of the realities of life in the Civil Rights era when her father Atticus defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Scout is a feisty and inquisitive character, demanding acknowledgement with questions that many her age wouldn’t think to ask. Behind this main story, Scout, her brother Gem, and their neighbour Dill, are determined to learn the mystery of Boo Radley. The Radley house sits next to theirs, yet none of them have seen Boo leave its doors at any time in their lives. And alongside all of this we have a cast of characters that typify what Harper Lee saw during her own childhood; those who fall on both sides of the fence when it came to the issues of the Civil Rights era. In the final third, all of these worlds converge into one of literature’s most powerful conclusions. If you don’t know it already, I won’t spoil it.
Without any plot diversions or unusual additions to discuss, I’ll move straight onto the acting. It was almost without fault. Major props to Daniel Betts and Zackary Momoh in their roles as Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson. Betts was almost the picture perfect Finch, displaying his quietly courageous character at the same time as his fussiness (according to Scout, anyway) as a father. Momoh came to life in the courtroom scenes of the second half, when Robinson is faced by a barrage of questions that he deals with bravely and respectfully. And then of course there were the kids. With Rosie Boore as Scout and Billy Price as Gem we had a pair that played the loving siblings with aplomb. Boore in particular was full of energy, fantastic with her comic timing, and able to wrench up the emotion from nowhere. But then there was also something special about Milo Panni in the role of Dill. With all the charm of a child star, we can expect to see him again and again.
A final congratulation has to go to Phil King, too. Other than the actors reading from books, the only other real twist on the original was the folky soundtrack written and performed by this composer and artist. They were songs that wouldn’t sound of place in the charts today. At the same time, they were songs that added a layer of emotion to the story being told on the stage.
With a great story, an interesting soundtrack, and a cast so close to flawless, there is really little else to say. Fans of the book need not fear. This is an adaptation that does justice to its inspiration.