After more than four decades, Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird and its themes of hatred and prejudice in America's Deep South still evoke strong feelings in classrooms and front rooms around the world. On the night I attended Clwyd Theatr Cymru's new touring production of Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation, the mainly young GCSE audience seemed keen to explore the text with fresh eyes.
Set in 1930s Alabama where racism prevails, Gwyn Vaughan Jones is a commanding Atticus Finch, the liberal-minded father and lawyer determined to defend black man, Tom Robinson (Rex Obano), and clear him of a rape charge against a white girl. Much of his family's touching tale is told through the eyes of Atticus's daughter, young but wise-beyond-her-years tomboy, Scout, played here with ease by Catrin Rhys. Sporting a convincing Southern accent and a childlike sense of disbelief in the vagaries of adults, Rhys gives a heartwarming and fully rounded performance.
Less successful is Mark Bailey's bland set design, which falls down particularly hard during the crucial legal scene. With no visible courtroom and no judge, Bailey relies too much on the audience's imagination - but the jury's out on this case - and, thus, fails to generate the required amount of tension.
Add to this director Tim Baker's apparent decision to pause at a few pivotal moments, as if in mid-air, and narrative drive is the casualty. Baker's direction and a script that struggles with the enormous task of capturing the complexity of the novel also suffer from occasional stiltedness as well as slowness. With many supporting roles severely underwritten, several members of the company are left with little to work with and end up looking lost on stage. Wendy Mae Brown is a prime example: stunning when called upon to sing, she spends most of her time spouting wasteful dialogue in empty scenes that keep the audience distanced from her Calpurnia.
Better is Simon Corder's suitably oppressive lighting. You can almost feel the claustrophobic heat and cloying humidity of the Deep South, a merciless sun beating down on characters that shimmer and agitate with sweat.
Still, it's not enough to really raise the temperature in an offering that lacks the depth and power of the original work. The Clwyd production does reward all comers with two fine lead performances, but it can't mask the fact the play itself, unlike the novel, is no classic.
- Glenn Meads (reviewed at The Lowry in Salford Quays)