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Saturday, 23 February 2013

Theatre - To Kill A Mockingbird - Royal Exchange Theatre

Star rating - 9/10

I always get slightly nervous when a much loved book or play is revived. It can either result in the murder of a classic, or in a fabulous reimagining. And I am very happy to report that in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Royal Exchange has a wonderful production on its hands. Director Max Webster manages to create the same sweltering Southern tension that so thrilled here last year in Orpheus Descending.
And whilst there is no star turn this time to rival the stupendous Imogen Stubbs, the play does not need one, as the whole cast sparkles - without exception.

Harper Lee's 1960 novel is well known, and indeed a set text for many students and school pupils still.  And the brilliant 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck is hard to dispel from the memory. Peck played Atticus Finch, the morally upstanding and highly principled lawyer who shocks his 1930's Alabama community by defending a black man who is accused of raping a white woman.  And at first I thought that Nigel Cooke might be undercooking the role slightly. But as his fabulous understated portrait of this brave man emerges, Cooke's nuanced delivery only adds to its impact.

Atticus knows no other way but to stand up for what he believes to be right - no matter what the consequences, and he strives to instil these values into his two children Jem and Scout. Jem is actually the narrator of the novel, and her narration is very cleverly used here via the voices of other actors through the piece. Shannon Tarbet is an accomplished young actor, and gives a spellbinding performance as the feisty young girl. 

The courtroom scene is breathtakingly dramatic, with Okeize Morro and Scarlett Brookes totally convincing as the wrongly accused and false accuser, both of whose pain is palpable. The sparse dirt set is ingeniously transformed by the cast using palettes during the action.  And these is a wonderful bluegrass band setting just the right tone as a rich musical backdrop to the action. 

It is sad that the themes of racism and prejudice are still as relevant today as when Lee's masterpiece was penned.  And the sometimes misplaced faith in a jury to come to the right conclusion is oddly poignant when the Vicky Pryce speeding points legal debacle is still ongoing. So this play is another triumph for my favourite theatre in the whole wide world - and it makes me very happy when I am able to say that. 

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