Robert Sean Leonard graces Timothy Sheader’s production for the Open Air of To Kill a Mocking Bird

Every mob in every Southern town is made up of people you know.
Atticus Finch


Robert Sean Leonard as Atticus Finch and cast (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

In a stylish and animated production, Robert Sean Leonard graces the London stage at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park to play Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill A Mockingbird, about the South in 1936. Timothy Sheader’s production uses Christopher Sergel’s adaptation and allows much of the narrative spoken by the children to be, as if, read from the book by different adult members of the cast using their British accents. 

Many of the cast join us from the audience, reading from the book, a directorial move that involves us all. Jon Bausor’s design allows the cast to chalk out the lines of the streets and the houses of the fictional Alabama town, Maycomb, as they are described. A tree dominates the centre of the town with a tyre swing hanging on a rope. Musician Phil King, acting as Link Deas, plays the guitar and sings songs of the South. 

We meet some of the townsfolk, Calpurnia (Michele Austin) who cares for the Finch children, the tomboy, Jean Louise Finch better known as Scout (Izzy Lee/Lucy Hutchinson/Eleanor Worthington-Cox) and Jem (Gus Barry/Adam Scotland/Callum Henderson). We hear about Boo Radley (Daniel Tuite), the scary recluse that the children are fascinated by and dare each other to knock at his door. Julie Legrand doubles as Stephanie Crawford and Mrs Dubose with a quick onstage costume change. 

After much talk about Atticus which is how the children refer to their widowed father, Robert Sean Leonard makes a late and much awaited entrance. Tall, handsome and in a homespun linen three piece suit, he is eminently sensible and statesmanlike. He tells the children to stop bothering Mr Radley and later sentences Jem to daily sessions reading to the racist Mrs Dubose, after Jem pulled off the flowers in her garden, in anger at her opinions. Tom Robinson (Richie Campbell) is imprisoned awaiting trial after being accused of the rape of Mayella Ewell (Rona Morison) and Atticus and the children, in a wonderful show of courage, foil the lynch mob gathering outside the gaol. 

In Act Two, the children, who now include Dill (Harry Bennett/Sebastian Clifford/Ewan Harris) see the trial of Tom Robinson after sitting with the Reverend Sykes (Joe Speare) in the gallery reserved for “coloureds”.  Simon Gregor gives an amazing, snarling and vindictive performance as Mayella’s father and town bigot, Robert E Lee, or Bob, Ewell. Despite Atticus’ persuasive defence that shows that Tom’s withered left arm could not have delivered Mayella’s injuries, the jury finds Tom Robinson guilty. This ending is realistic and shows the depth of prejudice in the South at that time. The courtroom scene makes the play high drama. As the children are threatened, an act of tolerance towards an outsider will pay off. 

Robert Sean Leonard’s performance will get him nominated for Best Actor this year, such is the attractive reasonableness of the role but I also enjoyed Simon Gregor’s Bob Ewell with his head bent, leaning forward like a predatory bird, snapping out his answers, “Yessir”. Richie Campbell’s Tom Robinson wears the pre-knowledge of ground down defeat. Rona Morison’s Mayella is obviously damaged but not by Tom Robinson. The children too are convincing and give mature performances way beyond their years. The narration by the whole cast takes the pressure off them and involves us all as readers of this iconic book. 

London needs plays about tolerance and empathy this summer. This is my must see production this year and hopefully there will be some warm weather, if not as humid, as Alabama, before it closes painfully early on 15th June. But the weather doesn’t really matter as Timothy Sheader’s To Kill A Mockingbird shines with heart warming joy. 

In 2015 this production transferred to the Barbican.  Here is my re-review.

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”Miss Maudie 

Timothy Sheader’s wonderful production of To Kill a Mockingbird transfers, after a couple of years and two more touring showings with another actor playing Atticus, to the Barbican now with Robert Sean Leonard back in the iconic role. 

It is very hard seeing this production for the second time not to miss the open air original with the opening scene of actors emerging from the audience to read the book’s introductory chapter. The Barbican is a very large theatre by London standards and consequently less involving as we are distanced from the action. I also had difficulty in hearing all that the children were saying with their Southern accents. 

But these are small niggles as this heartwarming book is staged with a sensitivity. The powerful second act which must figure as one of the best court room trial scenes impresses with the jury’s decision not shying away from the reality that is the South with its prejudice and set ways. 

We all look forward to Harper Lee’s book To Set A Watchman written before Mockingbird, with Scout looking back on her childhood being published on 14th July. 

Production Notes

To Kill a Mockingbird
Written by Harper Lee

Adapted by Christopher Sergel

Directed by Timothy Sheader

Cast

Starring:

Robert Sean Leonard

Simon Gregor 

With:

Izzy Lee/Lucy Hutchinson/Eleanor Worthington-Cox

Gus Barry/Adam Scotland/Callum Henderson

Harry Bennett/Sebastian Clifford/Ewan Harris

Michele Austin

Richie Campbell

Christopher Ettridge

Tom Godwin

Stephen Kennedy

Phil King

Hattie Ladbury

Julie Legrand

Rona Morison

Joe Speare

Daniel Tuite. 

Creatives

Director: Timothy Sheader

Designer: Jon Bausor 

Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick

Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson

Composer: Phil King

Movement Director: Naomi Said

Information

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval

Closed at the Open Air on 15th June 2013

Address:

Open Air

Regents Park

Inner Circle

London NW1 4PX

Phone: 020 7359 4404 

Website: www.openairtheatre.com

Rail/Tube: Baker Street

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Open Air  

on 22nd May  2013