13 March 2022
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Gielgud Theatre) Review

Having seen this very production on Broadway just over 3 years ago, I thought it would be fun to check out how different it would be in London.  The original run, reviewed here, was very good overall, but Jeff Daniels was absolutely mesmerising and stood miles above the rest of the cast.  It didn’t feel lopsided in the slightest, but it was his presence and delivery of text that made the production what it was.

The London production is far more of an ensemble cast.  Rafe Spall (who oddly received a couple of random claps when he came on stage, which isn’t something one does in the West End) felt on par with the rest of the cast.  He carried the character of Atticus very well, but it was the script that shone here rather than him being the star of the show as it were.  I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.  I also don’t know if that’s intentional or not.  It’s just different from the NYC staging, and I only note this having seen both.

I do like Spall’s take on Atticus.  He is a bit laid back, slow-moving in a way that gives him thoughtfulness, being measured and considered, etc.  It juxtaposes him to absolutely everyone else in the play, which makes his character more interesting and works surprisingly well.  I was distracted somewhat by his haircut, however.  The play taking place in the 1930s, one expects something slick, whereas Spall was sporting something half-way between a greaser and a tousled top:  both technically authentic to the period but neither being one for the courtroom.  Hair aside, Spall does the role justice and is engaging to watch.

For me, however, it was Patrick O’Kane as Bob Ewell who absolutely stole the show.  If the show carries on running, and the producers have to change the cast, they can swap out Spall, but O’Kane has to stay.  I’ve heard people say that it’s easy to play a baddie.  Firstly, I’m not sure I agree, and, secondly, O’Kane is the daddy of all baddies.  He positively drips nastiness.  He doesn’t just talk smack; he is absolutely terrifying.  I can’t recall who played Ewell in the NYC cast, and I also don’t recall him standing out in any particular way.  When O’Kane came on stage at curtain call, some people booed, which I thought was both funny and sad.  Yes, a definite “boo” to the character, but O’Kane deserved a standing ovation (which, incidentally, the whole cast did receive).  Looking at the list of his theatre credits, it seems this is indeed my first time seeing him on stage, but I’ll have to keep an eye out for him now, as I definitely want to see more.

Gwyneth Keyworth, Harry Redding, and David Moorst as Scout, Jem, and Dill, respectively, were lovely and charismatic and very child-like.  I was surprised to learn that this was Redding’s first professional production and can see him going far.

One more point of discussion worth reflecting on is the role of Calpurnia, ably played here by Pamela Nomvete. The role was greatly expanded from that in the book (more on that below), but I thought Nomvete’s interpretation made the play more “responsive” than I like my dramas to be.  In the Brodway staging, the actress (whose name escapes me, but I’ll look it up) who played Calpurina delivered her lines with wisdom and sadness.  It gave her the sort of poignancy where it feels like her message cuts right through you.  Here, in contrast, Nomvete is downright sassy.  She rolls her eyes and shakes her head in a way that makes you want to snap your fingers and say, “you go girl!”.  In fact, more than once, someone in the back of the stalls yelled “yay!” after her lines.  Obviously a lot of this is down to Bartlett Sher, the director, but I thought it broke the atmosphere, as I’m not a fan of vocal audience participation.  I didn’t like this approach, but plenty of others clearly did.

In case you missed all the drama before the start of the Broadway run, when Aaron Sorkin wrote his adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird for Broadway, the production company was promptly sued by the Harper Lee estate for breach of contract.  Sorkin changed the text, added new characters, modified lines, etc., none of which he was supposedly entitled to by the contract he signed with Lee before she died (apparently she stipulated that the spirit of the novel, as well as its characters, remain unchanged).  The parties eventually reached a settlement, and plenty of Sorkin’s changes remain.  The argument put up by Scott Rudin (whose production company is behind the play) was that presenting the characters as they were in the book wouldn’t be interesting in modern day and age (e.g., Atticus starting out a righteous man to begin with rather than going from making excuses for his racist neighbours to opposing them by the end of the play, black characters having implied points of view rather than actual meaningful lines).  I am not sure if he’s right or wrong.  It’s a fantastic book, and I think that, between a great director and a strong cast, it would’ve been possible to deliver the same message with a script that’s a bit more faithful to the book.  Guess you’ll have to see the play to make up your own minds.

If you can get an affordable ticket (whatever that means for your individual wallets), it’s definitely a play worth seeing.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £7.

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