To Kill A Mockingbird, West Yorkshire, Leeds Playhouse
Wednesday 20 September 2006
Think of Duncan Preston, and the uptight handyman of television's canteen comedy Dinnerladies may come to mind. But after listening to his compelling defence of a black man falsely accused of the rape of a white girl in a staged version of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Preston has convinced us, the jury, not only of the defendant's innocence but also of his own authenticity as the decent small-town attorney Atticus Finch.
With his fleshy features, thinning hair and spectacles, Preston is the complete opposite of Gregory Peck who played the widowed, granite-like defender of the law in the 1962 film. Preston, with his wearied expression, seems genuinely perplexed by the deep racial problems and social injustice colouring the attitudes of the community around him.
Maycomb, Alabama, is that community, the year is 1935 and, as reinforced by Simon Higlett's storybook set, with dappled sunlight playing on a cluster of shabby houses, "the day was 24 hours long but seemed longer". There's plenty to occupy the six-year-old "Scout" and her older brother, Jem, however, in their child's-eye view of the hatred, prejudice and danger that spill out of a stuffy courtroom into their lives.
In Michael Buffong's generally engaging production, Bettrys Jones conveys the mannerisms and voice of a precocious little girl to perfection, and Craig Vye turns in a well-tuned performance as Jem. Vinta Morgan brings integrity to the role of the accused black farmhand, Tom Robinson. But there's a lack of destructive complicity between the lying white farmer (Ged McKenna) and his daughter, whose exaggerated body language fails to suggest more than uninvolved sulkiness. The fake Deep Southern accents, along with some awkward positioning of the actors, too often leave you concentrating on catching the words rather than following the story.
Casting a young actor as the elderly Mrs Dubose makes her part less credible, and the sight of a grown man (Jean-Marc Perret as Charles) capering around in shorts claiming to be "going on seven" is faintly absurd.
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