Theatre review: To Kill a Mockingbird, Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London


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The Independent Culture

The only sin Scout Finch, the eight-year-old narrator of Harper Lee’s classic novel, has ever heard her lawyer father denounce was to kill a mockingbird; they do nothing but make music for us to enjoy.

The corruption of innocence is as much Lee’s theme as the rape and racism that disfigure a small Alabama town in the Depression, scene of Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning turn as Atticus Finch in the movie, and now the setting in Regent’s Park for a quiet, shadowy but highly effective performance by Robert Sean Leonard.

Sean Leonard, who first (and last) appeared on the London stage in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town twenty years ago, and is best known as Hugh Laurie’s sidekick, Dr James Wilson, in the Fox television series, House, moves deliberately through the play (the authorised, standard adaptation by the late Christopher Sergel) in true Peck style, even down to the horn-rimmed specs and crumpled white suit.

In the great courtroom scene, where he’s defending a dignified Tom Robinson (Richie Campbell) on a trumped-up rape charge, he shows how the defendant couldn’t have throttled his alleged victim from behind by throwing him a glass to catch one-handed; the left hand is useless, mangled in a cotton gin years ago.

It’s a moment of stunning revelation in Timothy Sheader’s production, all the more so for being low key. In a theatre where Shakespeare has been the summer norm for decades, Sheader and his team are now finding a Shakespearean dimension, and reverberation, in modern classics like The Crucible and Lord of the Flies.

The actors materialise among the audience, each reading from a different edition of the book. This device both honours the source and suggests the childish wisdom in Scout’s narrative, and the actors are continuously referring their performances back to the text.

This lightness of touch throws Sean Leonard’s gravitas into relief, so that his saint-like Finch – derided on all sides for “lawing for niggers” -- acquires a rock-like stillness in a ferment of nattering.

At the same time, the work-obsessed widower is negotiating a new relationship with his own children, played with wide-eyed ingenuity (at the performance I saw) by Izzy Lee as Scout and Adam Scotland as Jem in denim boiler-suits.

Sheader’s production, played on a tilted, chalk board setting by Jon Bausor, is very good at maintaining this emotional three-way dynamic between community, children and the shades of fear and ignorance.  

To 15 June (0844 826 4242)