To Kill A Mockingbird @ Chichester Festival Theatre
Chichester Festival Theatre seems the ideal landing place for this fascinating new take on possibly the 20th Century’s defining novel. An ensemble cast, refreshingly lacking in “star” names work together and never leave the stage, pulling the audience into the action.
This production made its debut at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and is on tour around the country, but its here, with Chichester’s thrust stage, that it feels most at home.
At its heart, Harper Lee’s story is about a little girl whose eyes are opened to the world around her and any production will live or die by its Scout. Jemima Bennett, in her first professional role, is as engaging and charismatic a performer as we’ve seen in some time, a ball of energy who, alongside her (also excellent) on and off stage brother Harry Bennett acts as our eyes and ears.
Daniel Betts’ Atticus is restrained, softly spoken and mindful of his friends and neighbours, but Betts brings him to life in the courtroom scenes, charging his defence of Tom Robinson with the indignation of someone who chooses to do the right thing against insurmountable odds.
To take us from one scene to the next the cast read extracts of the novel and this is where I sometimes found myself failing to engage, each actor reads in their own voice, resulting in a cavalcade of accents and on occasion some of Lee’s sublime writing is missed. In one glaring example “Thus began our longest journey together”, one of the more poignant lines in the book, is thrown away completely. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s enough to snap us out of the story from time to time.
Thankfully the dramatic moments are immersive and the show is full of wonderful character performances. Leo Heller is a shrewd and mischievous Dill, Zachary Momoh gives Tom Robinson a soft voice and a strong, stoic heart and Natalie Grady lights up the stage as Miss Maudie, interacting beautifully with the Children and often acting as their conscience.
In a story full of moments that threaten to moisten the eyes it’s the scene where Scout, not understanding what is about to happen, walks into the middle of a lynch mob to chat to Christopher Saul’s Walter Cunningham and makes him realise what he is about to do, that finally causes us to shed a tear. Jemima Bennett plays the moment perfectly, leaving just enough stillness between her lines to let the gravity of the situation sink in, while Saul’s Cunningham seemingly crumples at the kindness of the little girl in front of him.
If you’ve ever read the book, you’ll find yourself quoting along with the actors and if you’ve never picked it up, well then you’re missing a treat. But go see the play before you settle down and read it…