The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
As an English Literature set text for generations of schoolchildren, despite former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s best efforts, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird must be familiar to thousands upon thousands of people.
And if not the book, then the Gregory Peck film will probably have been watched by just as many.
So it’s with a degree of embarrassment that I realise I’m probably in the minority when my first introduction to the text is this Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre stage version.
But it’s a great introduction to the famous tale of social and racial inequality and moral education.
The stage is empty as the audience arrives and the play begins as the characters step up to the spotlights from around the auditorium.
It’s a sparse set, a tree with a tyre swing and a few sticks of old furniture, a corrugated iron fence and gently sloping floor but the cast constantly rotates the few props and help each other don one or two items of costume which transform their casual appearance in their narration roles into their character’s clothing.
Daniel Betts, as Atticus Finch, gives an understated and calm performance in a crumpled linen suit as the play’s moral compass.
The three child performers playing his children and their friend (Jemima Bennett, Harry Bennett and Leo Heller) have huge roles for such youngsters and handle them with aplomb, especially Jemima in her professional debut as Scout. None of them misses a beat and nor do their accents slip at any point.
Musician Phil King punctuates scenes and helps distract from props on the move with musical interludes on ukulele, guitar and harmonica and has a lovely voice, of which I wouldn’t have minded hearing more.
The constant change in narrators jars a little at times and it’s hard to figure out from whose character the viewpoint is coming but addressing the audience so directly helps draw us in further.
The audience also takes the part of the jury during the trial, with both prosecution and defence turning their arguments on us.
The main part of the second act focuses on the trial and there are two standout performances – those of Zackary Momoh as the accused Tom Robinson and Victoria Bewick as his accuser Mayella Ewell.
They both use their physical presence to great effect, with Bewick shifting awkwardly in her seat with twisted limbs as her discomfort intensifies under scrutiny and Momoh holding himself stiffly as he tries to retain his dignity and tell the truth even though he knows the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against him.
The verdict eventually comes and Christopher Saul, as Judge Taylor, pauses lengthily before announcing it, ratcheting up the tension unbearably and effectively.
This is one of the areas where a lack of knowledge of the original book, or even Gregory Peck’s famous 1962 film version comes in very handy, as with such a well-known text there can’t be many people who come to a performance not knowing the final outcome.
But I’m very glad that on this occasion, I was one of them.