THE BARBICAN THEATRE
This stirring stage revival captures the essence of Harper Lee’s classic novel.
Written by Harper Lee in 1960, the book won the Pulitzer prize the following year, was made into an Oscar-winning film, and has never been out of print. It was her only published novel until now, but with the recent publication of Go Set A Watchman (July 14), there’s been a renewed surge of interest in the reclusive Lee and her classic novel.
Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation has had a long life too – it’s been performed annually in Lee’s home town of Munroeville, Alabama, since 1990. The current Barbican show is a well-deserved revival of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production. And while the 2013 original had the advantage of magical twilight descending on the action and a backdrop of wind-rustled trees, this indoor staging has retained all the charm of Jon Bausor’s ingeniously simple set, with its single tree suggesting the carefree pleasures of childhood as well as the sinister possibilities of the lynch mob. The exceptional lighting design by Oliver Fenwick also helps to recreate the sticky, oppressive heat of Southern summer days and nights.
Director Timothy Sheader has ensured that the book itself and its brilliant storytelling remain at the heart of the production. The stage is littered with copies which the cast retrieve and use to read aloud chunks of the text (in English accents) alongside the dialogue, which is performed in by-and-large pretty convincing southern American accents.
Sheader has assembled a strong cast, led by Robert Sean Leonard, reprising his Regent’s Park role as Atticus Finch, the defence lawyer with an unshakeable moral compass who will do right, cost what it may – and who is also, by-the-by, a dead-eye shot. Leonard brings gravitas and authority to Finch (perhaps aided by his Gregory Peck-inspired glasses), and is especially impressive in the courtroom scene where the house lights rise to include us all in the jury he addresses with such passionate conviction.
Zachary Momoh is intensely moving as the gentle, generous-hearted Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman he had the temerity to feel sorry for. His deadly fear is all the more heart-wrenching for its restraint, and Robinson’s one outburst of anguish is quickly quashed by a court that’s decided his fate long before the case opened.
Susan Lawson-Reynolds bustles, chides and guides with a perfect mix of warmth and authority as Calpurnia, the maid who manages the motherless Finch household. Her charges, Scout and Jem, together with bookish neighbour Dill, are played with real charm and conviction by Ava Potter, Tommy Rodger and Connor Brundish. The children are at the heart of the book, and these are challenging parts by any standards, but the young performers all capture the drama of the roles – and Timothy Sheader’s sure-footed direction ensures they don’t miss any of the laughs either.
Jamie Kenna as sheriff-with-a-heart Heck Tate and Geoff Aymer as the loyal Reverend Sykes also give standout performances, but this is very much an ensemble piece, with the cast all watching from the perimeter, manoeuvring the props and even chalking the outlines of the streets and houses onto the stage. Some other character roles are perhaps played a little over-zealously, but this is a moving and uplifting show that captures the heart of Harper Lee’s work.
At the Barbican theatre until July 25.
Monday – Saturday 7.30pm
Matinee performances (Thurs & Sat) 2.30pm
For tickets http://www.barbican.org.uk
• This review first published on goodhousekeeping.co.uk