Aaron Sorkin does two things brilliantly: statesmen and strong women. The writer of A Few Good Men, polisher of Schindler’s List and creator of Globe-nominated The West Wing never misses. To Kill a Mockingbird is no exception.
The play earns the many five stars plastered upon its West End billboards and attached to the side of the Gielgud Theatre, its home for until February 2023. With a slick production, clever set design and acting brilliance, the play manages to live up to the bestselling novel it is adapted from.
When Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 it became an instant hit, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and going on to sell over 45 million copies worldwide. It was also adapted into an Academy-Award winning film in 1962 which grossed over $20m from a $2m budget.
The story follows the Finch family: children Scout and Jem, cook Calpurnia and Atticus, their middle-aged lawyer father, told through Scout’s precocious point of view. Along with a friend, Dill Harris, Scout and Jem as their father defends a black man in a rape trial against a young white woman in Alabama in the 1930s.
The book, known for its honestly and humility in dealing with serious issues of rape, racial inequality and class, has often been banned with many claiming its grave themes, racial slurs and sexual references are inappropriate for children’s literature, or even adults.
But the play doesn’t stray far from the original script, with the upsetting language from racist, mentions of the Ku Klux Klan, stage violence and mentions of rape and sexual themes dealt with with fluency and care, thoughtfully intersected with childhood innocence.
Whilst it does keep close to the original plot, the play does still take some risks. The protagonist Scout Finch, her elder brother Jem Finch and friend Dill Harris are all played by adults. Considering they are meant to be 6-9, 10-13 and 7 respectively, the leap is a large one.
But Gwyneth Keyworth, Harry Redding and David Moorst nail it. With childlike traits and humour, they manage to bring in subtle humour and genuine warmth to a talented cast. Dill is perhaps the most different depiction, with Moorst winning the biggest laughs for the naive humour of the character that Lee originally based on her smart childhood friend and author Truman Capote.
Other highlights include moments of emotional crescendo from Pamela Nomvete’s Calpurnia and the subtle devastation of Jude Owusu’s Tom Robinson as he single-handedly represents black men across America screwed by the evidentally racially discriminatory legal system.
Harper Lee rejected the calls that Tom represented the notorious case of the Scottsboro Boys, but instead said he was inspired by singular events in her life and over the course of the Civil Rights Movement to use Tom’s characterisation to display Southern prejudices.
With an all-white jury, racist prosecutor and disturbing outbursts from Poppy Lee Friar’s Mayella Ewell and Patrick O’Kane’s Bob Ewell, the reality of life for black men and women is deeply upsetting to see, and expertly translated to the improved (yet imperfect) 21st century London.
But it’s undoubtedly the slow-burning brilliance from Richard Coyle as show star Atticus Finch that brings this performance to a head, and earns him the largest applause in the Gielgud’s cosy auditorium.
With a brilliant depiction that doesn’t stray far from the novel, except for Scout momentarily breaking the fourth wall before the second half, the play is a must-see for Harper Lee fans and To Kill a Mockingbird fans alike.