The kids steal the show in this brilliant production of Harper Lee’s caustic novel about racism in 1930s Alabama. Their exuberant energy infuses the stage with warmth and the pure moral righteousness that can only be embodied by children.
Scout and her brother Jem are being harassed in school because their lawyer father Atticus Finch is defending a black man accused of rape. The story follows through to a spectacular courtroom scene, and subsequent dark events in a racially rotten American south.
Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch has all the moral authority and manages to hold the centre of the stage, despite fierce competition from the kids. Ava Potter as tomboy Scout is thoroughly memorable, and Arthur Franks brings a subtle maturity to his version of older brother Jem. Connor Brundish delights as the intensely verbal Dill, the pal inspired by Truman Capote.
Rather than carving a play out of the novel, this version literally puts the novel on the stage. The ensemble of actors each carry a different edition of the book and occasionally narrate from it, before jumping in and out of costumes to transform into all the other characters. The narration is done in British accents, a theatrical acknowledgement that this is a UK production by Regent’s Park Theatre of an American story.
Design is clever; the stage is a giant blackboard surrounded by a corrugated fence with furnishings stacked to the sides, for rapid set construction. Director Timothy Sheader steers the loose structure with impeccable control.
The story’s continued relevance is underlined by the unhappy contemporary resonances of a black man being shot 17 times while trying to escape. The optimistic ending feels uncomfortably unfulfilled 55 years after the novel’s first appearance.