Few books are as loved and timeless as Harper Lee's Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Harper Lee so any new adaptation of it is going to have high expectations. First announced in 2019, Aaron Sorkins adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird finally opens in the West End this week, nearly two years later than originally planned. Since opening on Broadway in 2018, it has gone on to become the most successful American play over there, but can it deliver the same results over here?
First published in 1960, To Kill A Mockingbird tells the story of racial injustice in a fictional town in Alabama in 1934. Though the action is centred around Atticus Finch as he defends Tom Robinson, the story is predominantly told through the eyes of his children, providing a unique narrative and a beautiful sense of innocence that only goes to add to the poignancy to the story as well as lighten the tone by providing some comic relief which can often be needed, given the heavy story being played out.
The role of Atticus Finch is played by star of stage and screen Rafe Spall. Having tackled a variety of roles throughout his illustrious career, Rafe really proves with his performance there is nothing he can't do. As Finch, he gives a nuanced performance, commanding the stage and the courtroom with a quiet calm that feels fitting for the character. In the rare moments where Atticus emotes such as his courtroom outburst, you feel every moment of that - such is the quality of Rafe's acting. Flaws in Atticus' character are subtly explored in natural ways that adds depth to the script.
This isn't a one man show though, and the fairly large cast all deliver some of the best acting I have ever witnessed on a West End stage. Harry Redding and Gwyneth Keyworth are wonderful as the Finch children Jem and Scout, with Gwyneth particularly mesmerising to witness portraying a young girl in a way that is surprisingly believable. David Moorst gives a star turn as their childhood friend Dill, having to navigate a range of complicated emotions which he does with sensitivity and ease.
Jude Owusu gives an understated yet moving performance as the wrongfully accused Tom Robinson, while Patrick O'Kane may play the unsavoury character of Bob Ewell but there is no denying the acting ability it takes to pull it off with conviction in the way he does. When he spouts his hatred, the audience in turn feel contempt for the character which is a testament to his talent. His daughter Mayella gets a standout moment in the play when she takes the stand, and Poppy Lee Friar really rises to the occasion, portraying her conflicting emotions with authenticity.
In a change to the original book, the character of Calpurnia is enhanced, voicing her feelings throughout the play. This is done to give an African-American character a voice in the play, as the only two in the book fail to have one. The effect of this is incredibly stirring, thanks to the phenomenal acting by Pamela Nomvete, delivering what is perhaps the standout performance of the play.
Harper Lee's text may be a timeless classic but it has been completely reinvigorated by Aaron Sorkin. A true masterclass in storytelling, To Kill A Mockingbird may have originally been written over 60 years ago and be set nearly 90 years ago but it still feels as important and, sadly, relevant as ever, thanks to the racism that still cruelly exists in the world. Hearing the bigoted statements made by certain characters in the play still proves difficult to hear, but it only proves how important it is to tell stories like this in order to not make the same mistakes of the past.
With fantastic direction from Barlett Sher, To Kill A Mockingbird boasts a sprawling set design by Miriam Buether which succeeds in breathing life on to the stage, moving from the courtroom to the Finch's house seamlessly, with elements surrounding the stage at all directions ready to transform them. An inspired touch is the use of music in this play, with an organist (Candida Caldicot) and guitarist (Frank Dawkins) gracing the stage at all times, providing a suitable backdrop to proceedings, with original music by Adam Guettel interspersed throughout, including a powerful closing scene.
It takes a village to make a play as sensational as this. With a cast of 30, 2 musicians and an extensive creative and production team, every element of To Kill A Mockingbird has been well thought out and executed with excellence. Lighting design from jennifer Toption to Sound design from Scott Lehrer to gorgeous costume design from Ann Roth, there is nothing in this play that falls short of pure perfection. Everyone involved well and truly rose to the occasion.
To Kill A Mockingbird is as powerful as theatre can get. Difficult to watch at times but completely gripping regardless, this play is truly vital. Fantastic writing coupled with a truly incredible cast of actors at the top of their game, filling every inch of that stage with sheer talent left me awe-inspired. The final words of the play are "All rise" which the audience duly obliged, giving it one of the most deserved standing ovations I've ever been a part of. A phenomenal production, To Kill A Mockingbird really is worthy of all the hype and definitely worth the extensive wait - this is surely one of the best things you can catch in the West End at the moment.
To Kill A Mockingbird is currently booking at the Gielgud Theatre until November 19th. Tickets from www.tokillamockingbird.co.uk
Photos by Marc Brenner