To Kill a Mockingbird — stirring drama celebrates and scrutinises Harper Lee’s novel

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To Kill a Mockingbird

Gielgud Theatre, London

“All rise.” It’s the refrain that runs through Aaron Sorkin’s mighty stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. It starts as an instruction from an official to the courtroom, becomes an invitation to the audience at the interval and ends as a rallying cry, importuning all those present to act.

And that’s what makes this staging such a stirring piece of work. Led by a tremendous performance from Rafe Spall, it’s a restless, probing, engaged piece of theatre that celebrates Harper Lee’s beloved book and scrutinises it. Where Lee grapples with the ugliness of segregation from the vantage point of 1960 and the civil rights movement, Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher arrive in the UK with an approach shaped by Trump’s presidency, Black Lives Matter and the current tug of war for America’s future.

That scrutiny is embedded in Miriam Buether’s set. We begin not on the steamy streets of small-town Alabama in the 1930s, but in an empty dilapidated warehouse — a place of memory; a possible metaphor for the contemporary US — in which children Scout, Jem and Dill gather to relive the summer and the court case that changed their lives.

Characters and fragments of story roll into that space as recalled by the trio. Narrative becomes key: who is telling the story; whose story they are telling; the role of narrative in a trial. And front and central is the courtroom: the sultry, packed wooden hall that becomes symbolic of the ideal of justice and the shame of its betrayal.

The story remains roughly intact: Atticus Finch, small-town lawyer and father to Scout and Jem, defends Tom Robinson, an innocent black man who has been maliciously accused of rape by a white woman. But here there’s a more quizzical attitude towards Atticus’s integrity. He remains a decent man who cleaves to justice and his faith in the fundamentally good nature of his fellow humans. But the relative luxury of that stance becomes sharper.

Sorkin gives both Tom (dignified and astute in Jude Owusu’s performance) and the Finch family’s black maid, Calpurnia, more say and a chance to dispute Atticus’s assertion that even a vicious racist such as Bob Ewell (a snakelike Patrick O’Kane) should be respected. When Spall’s Atticus protests that his children should feel safe in their neighbourhood, Pamela Nomvete’s firm, watchful Calpurnia fixes him with a beady stare: “Lemme try hard to see if I can relate to that.”

From left, Gwyneth Keyworth, Harry Redding and David Moorst as Scout, Jem and Dill © Marc Brenner

The production can feel ponderous at times, but the seriousness of the issues is leavened by a thread of playful wit in the script. Scout (Gwyneth Keyworth), Jem (Harry Redding) and Dill (David Moorst) find a nice balance between their childhood and adult selves: Keyworth pugnacious and blazingly moral; Redding troubled and impulsive; Moorst charismatic and vulnerable. 

And then there is Spall, humane and flawed as Atticus. His worried affection for his children, his self-deprecating humour, his sterling sense of good conduct all come with a pinch of satisfaction in his moral rectitude, a certain relish for his own intelligence and flashes of temper and doubt. It’s in his exchanges with Calpurnia that this production finds its centre, as she challenges his assumptions. And it is in the neat overlaps between courtroom and theatre that it throws those challenges out to the audience.

★★★★☆

Booking to November 19, tokillamockingbird.co.uk

Robert Lindsay, centre, plays a pioneering doctor in ‘The Fever Syndrome’ © Ellie Kurtz

The Fever Syndrome

Hampstead Theatre, London

State-of-the-nation plays about the US are currently assembling thick and fast on the London stage. Along with To Kill a Mockingbird, we’ll shortly see Mike Bartlett’s much-anticipated new drama, The 47th, about the next presidential election. Meanwhile, Alexis Zegerman’s The Fever Syndrome arrives to discuss medical ethics, inheritance and insularity.

Each writer deploys a traditional genre to discuss critical issues: for Bartlett, it’s the history play; for Sorkin, the courtroom drama. And for Zegerman, it’s the big family drama and that time-honoured scenario of a loaded reunion. Here, we can feel the imprint of Miller, Williams and O’Neill, as the adult Myers children gather in their family home to celebrate paterfamilias Professor Richard Myers winning a lifetime achievement award.

Richard (Robert Lindsay) is a pioneering doctor, loved and lauded by many because of his innovations in IVF treatment. He is also dying of Parkinson’s disease, so along with reminiscing there is a spiky anticipation in the air about where his assets are heading. And while he has brought joy for thousands of families, Richard has clearly left his own children with plenty of emotional baggage.

Daughter Dot (Lisa Dillon) played second fiddle to Richard’s work and is now abrasively unhappy; Thomas, who is gay, craves paternal acceptance; his twin brother Anthony is charming but unreliable. Thomas wonders whether his father would have genetically modified his sexuality if he could; Dot, whose 12-year-old daughter Lily has a serious autoinflammatory condition (the “fever syndrome” of the title), wants a second child without the disorder.

Questions about parenting, genetics and inheritance ripple through the piece. Add to this Richard’s own volatility, a ghost, a disappearance and an assortment of partners who feel sidelined and you have a rolling maul of hopes, resentments, doubts and recriminations — together with an underlying anxiety about the future of liberal America. The family, like Lily’s body, fights itself; the struggle for survival and self-definition shapes every encounter.

It’s nothing if not richly ambitious and Roxana Silbert’s production spills out on Lizzie Clachan’s atmospheric set (a towering cutaway of a Manhattan brownstone), bubbling with brooding tensions. But the play is hampered dramatically by the sheer quantity of emotional crises, which pile up without really acquiring cumulative weight. People squabble in bedrooms, lurk on the stairs, scheme and plot, but the evening never quite reaches boiling point.

Performances are uniformly very good, however. Lindsay movingly finds the scared small child inside the irascible, overbearing man; Dillon likewise combines spiky intellect with the nagging fear of a worried parent; Alex Waldmann’s Thomas is a ball of vulnerabilities and Sam Marks is too smooth for comfort as Anthony. Nancy Allsop is excellent as the profoundly sick Lily, whose frailty ultimately has something to teach them all.

★★★☆☆ 

To April 30, hampsteadtheatre.com

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