It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’. It’s also a sin to kill one of the most powerful pieces of Twentieth Century American Literature with a mediocre adaptation that fails to deliver its message as anything other than a trite glance back to the poverty and racial strife of 1930s America in the midst of a light-hearted comedy.
Which is exactly what the much-lauded Regent’s Park production of Harper Lee’s seminal To Kill A Mockingbird does. With the exception of the trial of Tom Robinson (played with passionate intensity by Zackary Momoh), Timothy Sheader’s production aims at light evening entertainment for the affluent, free from any actual contemplation of the hard-hitting issues it raises only to bury them amid the antics of cute kids and carefully planted gags. Robert Sean Leonard mesmerises as the world-weary lawyer Atticus Finch, and there are strong performances by Ava Potter, Tommy Rodger and Connor Brundish as his children Scout and Jem and their friend Dill, but the supporting ensemble struggle to match this, frequently resorting to half-baked, two-dimensional caricatures and even racial stereotyping in order to get their laughs from the audience (Susan Lawson-Reynolds’ Calpurnia is particularly cringe-worthy in this respect).
Christopher Sergel’s adaptation is textually faithful to the original, lifting the dialogue from Lee’s novel into the naturalistic world created by Jon Bausor’s utilitarian set, the corrugated tin walls of which are sympathetically lit by Oliver Fenwick’s design to suggest the heat of the courtroom and the dark night in which Boo Radley finally emerges from his house. Perhaps in an attempt to highlight the book’s enduring legacy and the timelessness of its themes, Lee’s narrative is provided by the supporting cast, who read from tattered copies of the novel in English accents, but the effect is more bedtime story-telling than borne out of a genuine need to communicate Lee’s message to the audience. In the event, this task devolves onto Robert Sean Leonard, his Atticus standing tall as a beacon of humanity and justice in a town where white is right.
Perhaps if Sergel’s adaptation had taken more risks with its material and translated Scout’s narrative into some meaty monologues for its young actor or an older Scout character who commented retrospectively on the action then justice could have been served to the novel’s formidable subject matter. As it stands though, this is a production aimed at filling houses and, whether at the capacious outdoor arena in Regent’s Park (where the play premiered in 2013), on tour or in the Barbican’s main house, it smacks of West End commercialism. There were few black audience members in the stalls tonight, and still fewer children, making the story-telling of the ensemble seem that bit more patronising – a pandering pat on the back to a white middle class audience congratulating themselves on how far we’ve come and how lucky we are to live in Britain in 2015 and not Alabama in the 1930s.