Twenty years ago, a young Robert Sean Leonard appeared on the London stage with Alan Alda in a revival of Our Town.
Now he’s back, newly renowned for starring with Hugh Laurie in eight TV series of House, in another small-town American classic, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, in the stage version by Christopher Sergel that is performed all over the United States and in Harper Lee’s back yard in Monroeville, Alabama, once a year.
There’s nothing stale or routine, though, in Timothy Sheader’s revival, which plays for just one month at the Open Air before making way for Pride and Prejudice and The Sound of Music. Whatever happened to Shakespeare in the Park?
At the start, the actors stand up among the audience, each holding a different edition of Harper Lee’s novel. The narrative of Scout Finch, the eight year-old girl who recounts the tale of summer-time adventure, neighbourliness, rape and racism becomes a Nicholas Nickleby-style presentation, actors running around, sitting on the stage between scenes and chalking out the Maycomb County street names on designer Jon Bausor’s tilted stage.
There’s a single tree with a tyre swing dangling, and the climactic court scene is sketched in with single chairs and a fragment of banister where Scout, her elder brother Jem and their best friend Dill are packed in the gallery with Joe Speare’s solitary Reverend Sykes.
The show has a stark, outline quality about it, entirely suited to the poetry and compression of the adaptation. And as night closes in around us, and news comes of the tragedy after the conviction, the scene is set perfectly for the assault on the children themselves after a fancy dress pageant at the school.
Wandering through, with almost resigned indifference, Sean Leonard’s Atticus Finch, bespectacled and summer-suited, like Gregory Peck in the movie, cuts a figure of desolation rather than exemplary probity: “They’ll do it again,” he declares of the town’s habitual racism, “and when they do, it seems like only children weep.”
It’s a quiet, still and enigmatic performance, buttressed by the comparative vivacity of Christopher Ettridge as the judge (and an illiterate farmer), Simon Gregor as the ratty, scowling, violent Bob Ewell, Hattie Ladbury as the fussing Maudie Atkinson, Julie Legrand as the wildly eccentric Mrs Dubose in dark glasses and Rona Morison as the allegedly abused Mayella Ewell, Bob’s daughter.
Actors are allowed their own accents, wisely avoiding too much bad Southern drawling, and Phil King has composed, and performs with guitar, some pretty good linking songs. Three teams of children rotate the roles of Scout, Jem and Dill taken on opening night by Izzy Lee, Adam Scotland and Harry Bennett, a cheeky metropolitan in bow-tie and braces, an under-age Truman Capote.