On Monday night I was lucky to be able to attend the opening night of an adaptation of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at the Octagon Theatre. I was really interested to see how it would be staged, especially since I had only read the book for the first time within the last year. I think this is one of those times when I wish I wasn’t just a normal theatregoer and I had the appropriate knowledge and vocabulary to be able to talk about this production. Please bear with my opinion, then:

The staging was ingenious and minimal, with sand underfoot and a tree branch hanging down above one stage entrance, which served as a key focal point of the play. This really was theatre in the round, with the cast making their entrances down the aisles and through the various entrances to great effect, focusing all the action very much into the centre of the theatre and drawing the audience into the action. This was further enhanced during the courtroom scenes, where seats for the cast were strategically placed within the auditorium and the judge addressed the whole audience as the jury, calling on us to consider the evidence presented, to question everything and come to our own judgement.

The front porches cleverly doubled up as courtroom docks and a tiled/chessboard floor to the courtroom very much emphasised the racial division that underpins the story. The lighting also served to intensify the atmosphere and captured the essence of a small town American summer that changed things forever.

During the first half of the play I wasn’t too keen on the adult Scout, Jean Louise Finch, as I found myself, at times, expecting her to burst into Mamma Mia. It’s not a criticism of the performance, as such, as I think it probably had more to do with the costume, but at times the delivery felt a little ‘over enthusiastic’ and the American accent took a bit of getting used to. This is just a small criticism, however, and in the second half I thought the use of the narrator felt much more balanced.

The performances were all fairly assured, with only a few discernible first night stumbles, but the stand-out performance of the night was undoubtedly from the young Scout, played by Jasmine De Goede. She had just the right amount of charm, balanced with some feisty outbursts that really captured the essence of the character that I remember from the book. She is certainly a star of the future!

Leila Mimmack was extremely convincing as Mayella Ewell, the young girl who accuses Tom of assaulting and raping her, although I felt quite sorry for her as her role was just so downright miserable! She looked completely distraught throughout and conveyed the fear and misery of the poor girl perfectly.

Atticus, played by Rob Edwards, also played a very solid and believable role, although I had imagined the character rather differently. It’s always interesting to see the dramatization of a book because of the challenges involved in transferring to a different medium, whilst still capturing the essence of the characters and the story.

This is an engaging night out but it can be an uncomfortable experience at times. The language and attitudes of 1935 are quite hard to listen to now. Indeed, one of the questions raised during the trial is whether children should witness such things but ultimately, as the judge says, it is for their parents to decide. The book has been dropped from the school curriculum, but really it is one of those ‘Lest We Forget’ stories that also has some heart-warming lessons about acceptance and standing up for your beliefs, in the face of opposition, and doing what’s right.

The play still has relevant messages for society and, if it was been designed to make the audience think, then it certainly achieved its aim, and more. Don’t go along with a group of friends if you want a fun night out, but if you want to experience real quality theatre and some real food for thought, then book now, while you can.

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