Nobody could ever confuse chilly Manchester for the American Deep South, but the Royal Exchange have been using it as an effective stand in of late, first staging Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, and now an adaptation of Harper Lee’s iconic novel.
Although Christopher Sergal’s stage adaptation of Lee’s tale of racial injustice and loss of innocence is not as widely celebrated as Alan Pakula’s film, it’s easy to see why it remains popular with theatre companies. Set in 1930s Alabama, as with the novel, it’s a work of two contrasting halves: the first focussing on lawyer Atticus Finch and his children Scout and Jem who, together with their friend Dill, spend their time playing ball and concocting wild theories about Boo Radley, the mysterious loner who never leaves his house. It’s a beautiful evocation of childhood, which is then shattered in a second half dominated by the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman; Robinson is defended by Finch, much to the local inhabitants’ racist chagrin.
The ensemble cast are all on top form but Shannon Tarbet in particular is nothing short of extraordinary in the role of Scout; the twenty-something actress so convincingly inhabit the role of the six-year-old girl, elegantly conveying both her initial naivety and her growing sense of disillusionment, with grown ups, with the world.
Nigel Cooke is also quite superb as the quiet, dignified and unshakeably honest Atticus Finch; he’s utterly compelling whenever he’s on stage, especially in the climatic courtroom scene. There is also some fine support from Kieron Jecchinis as the repellent Bob Ewell and James McConville, every inch the young Truman Capote as Dill. Rupert Simonian, as Scout’s brother Jem, and Okezie Morro, as the tragic Tom Robinson, also do strong work.
While remaining true to the source material, director Max Webster brings a freshness to many of the scenes. The opening gambit of having Tarbet read the opening paragraph of the novel in her natural voice before gradually morphing into Scout could have backfired awkwardly but both director and performer pull it off; the moment feels in keeping with the mood of the piece while making a direct connection with Lee’s novel.
James Cotterill’s design is simple but effective: the entire stage area is covered with dust and grain (so dusty in fact that it leads to an outbreak of coughing from the audience near the end of the first half, which is something of a drawback), and this versatile space is then transformed to create front porches and backyards and, of course, a courtroom. The live music provided by a three-piece bluegrass band also help to create a suitably warm atmosphere.
The courtroom scenes see the lawyers addressing the audience as the jury. Webster handles these scenes well, building up a tremendous amount of tension even when you know that prejudice will eventually overcome reason. If a couple of scenes become a bit overwrought – particularly Jem’s breakdown of anger in a flowerbed, as a gospel choir booms around him – this is balanced out by the eventual emergence of Boo Radley; it’s a suitably eerie and potent moment, the lighting and music intensifying the power of the scene.
It may be a production with few surprises, familiar to most of the audience, but Webster makes you remember why it’s so well loved and resonant a piece of writing. To paraphrase Atticus Finch, it lets us climb inside another skin and walk around in it, seeing the world from their point of view.