Robert Sean Leonard as Atticus Finch in Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo by Johan Persson
Robert Sean Leonard as Atticus Finch in Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's production of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Photo: Johan Persson
REVIEWS

To Kill a Mockingbird
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, London
Adapted for the stage by Christopher Serdel
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Runs until June 15, 2013

Reviewed by Michael Burland

Under Timothy Sheader, the Open Air Theatre has become one of the most interesting and exciting venues in the capital, and his production of Christopher Sergel's adaptation of the classic Harper Lee book maintains their winning streak. The theater's beautiful setting, excellent facilities and helpful, cheerful staff always make a special evening, but how does a quintessentially American tale work here?

The fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, is represented on a sloping stage by simple childlike chalk drawings, drawn out before your eyes, as the play starts, by the minor cast members. As they do so, they read from the book in their regular accents – Northern Irish, London, Scots and RADA. Throughout the play this ploy continues, providing a neat glimpse into the inner workings of the book's narrator, the grown-up Jean Louise Finch, aka Scout.

Some of the audience found the British accents off-putting, while a few of the cast's Alabaman accents whilst in character are slightly variable – they may coalesce as the run progresses. Be warned, the stage may look and feel like rural Alabama – full credit is due to the technical crew including designer Jon Bausor – but the nights can be chilly and damp in Regent's Park so take a blanket.

Three young actors play each of the three children's kids parts. Atticus Finch's eight year old tomboy daughter Scout was played on the night we went by Eleanor Worthington-Cox, a star in the making. Feisty, funny, clever and curious, she is totally believable and holds the stage whenever she is on – and she is on a lot. Even at the beginning of the pivotal lynch mob scene all eyes were on her as she sat quietly on a chair upstage, legs swinging, eyes fixed on the grown-ups' idiocies. Theater staff report that the other Scouts, as well as the boys playing Jem and Dill, are excellent too.

Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo by Johan Persson
Scout (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) helps Boo Radley (Daniel tuite) tend to Jem (Callum Henderson), watched over by Atticus (Robert Sean Leonard) in To Kill a Mockingbird at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre.
Photo by Johan Persson
The lead in this impressive ensemble, 'first among equals', is Robert Sean Leonard, ['Wilson from House', although he hates to be tagged as such], who 'wrestles with the ghost of Gregory Peck' [as he told The American in our chat before the run started]. He needn't have worried, he comes out ahead in a subtly powerful performance. Leonard succeeds in making Atticus a believable human being caught in a Southern Gothic nightmare. He is a good man but no saint, struggling to bring up two kids alone with help from the nanny, Calpurnia, while representing the poor and downtrodden folk of Maycomb even when their ideals and behavior fall far short of his own. His rumpled cream suit and horn rimmed spectacles are a clear nod to Peck, as is his underplayed stillness and 'grace under pressure', but Leonard makes the part his own. The production pivots on him, placing Atticus' evolving relationship with his children as central to the plot as the adult world's racist perversion of justice, with Atticus the central rock to both.

Among the adult ensemble, two actors stand out. Robert Sean Leonard, of course, and Richie Campbell, whose Tom Robinson – crippled and wrongfully accused – is gripping, dignified and resigned to his fate. The incidental music – composed by Phil King and played by him on stage deserves a mention too.

Rarely put on in London, To Kill a Mockingbird is a staple of the US stage. A definite five-star recommendation for local audiences, does this production deserve to be seen by Americans over here too? Overwhelmingly, without a doubt, yes.


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