From the outset, it is clear that Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is all about the ultimate comfort of storytelling. Having ventured into the park and up the winding paths leading into the theatre, there is a sense of settling down somewhere ‘otherworldly’.
The sunlight is just dimming as the cast take up their copies of Harper Lee’s novel and begin to read aloud, springing up from within the audience one by one. The likes of Michele Austin, Julie Legrand and Stephen Kennedy welcome us in with their natural accents, yet step into the twangs and drawls of the American South. The production stays true to the first person narrative and highlights the ubiquity of the community voice: we are all Scout. After all, this is a child’s story set in an adults’ world.
Fortunately, the child cast provides a strong central pivot. I can speak only of those in the performance I saw but Izzy Lee (surname coincidental) as Scout was duly tomboyish, endearing and inquisitive in her role. She was flanked by Gus Barry as the daring Jem and Harry Bennett as the adventurous Dill. Both gave impressive performances but Bennett was especially charming – all character bias aside. There were accent slippages at points but overall they formed a neat trio.
Imagination is encouraged by simple staging, with the boundaries of the neighbourhood marked in chalk on the stage floor, set against warm lighting and a solitary tree swing. Alongside childhood, the mystery contained within the pastoral setting is constantly harked back to. The character of Boo Radley epitomises this interaction and Daniel Tuite’s performance really stood out. Subtly and effectively, he reconciles the person that the town believe Boo to be with his true character. Phil King’s folksy melodies on the ukulele and harmonica picked up and dropped the mood and tied in with the ‘purity of storytelling’ motif. As Harper Lee said: ‘Mockingbirds just make music… That’s why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird’ and all that.
Robert Sean Leonard’s Atticus Finch binds the whole production together, honouring the dry humour and commanding but fair nature we most admire. He maintains a close sensitivity to the character of the novel and the natural gentleness of his voice complements the role perfectly. There is also an easy looseness to his choreography and that of the other cast members. As the stage has been left bare, the space can be constantly reimagined, in-keeping with the jumpy pace of the narrative. Props glide seamlessly between the different ‘spaces’ and character changes (there is quite a bit of doubling up) are slick.
By the second half, the sun had set completely. The settling darkness, sudden drop in temperature and steady rattle of the typewriter provide the perfect backdrop for the famous court scene. Rona Morison (Mayella Ewell) and Simon Gregor (Bob Ewell) really come into their own with emotional tension dominating their whole bodies. The quivering, feeble and introverted Mayella is effectively subjugated by the confident, proud and aggressive Bob Ewell. When Richie Campbell as Tom Robinson takes stage, the inherent intimacy of the Open Air Theatre really comes into play.
As the theatre is ‘open’ to the elements as well as to the imagination, the season runs only from May to September. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a thoughtful, expressive and well-executed start to the 2013 schedule, finishing on 15th June to make way for adaptations of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’ and ‘The Sound of Music’. This is creative, unpretentious theatre at its best.