Review: To Kill a Mockingbird, Gielgud Theatre ★★★★★

The West End transfer of Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird has been a long time coming, with more than a few bumps along the way. Originally announced in October 2019, it had been set to star Rhys Ifans as Atticus Finch, the lawyer set to defend a black man accused of a crime he clearly didn’t commit – and one of the most famous fictional characters of all time – but delays due to lockdowns mean the play is only just opening at the Gielgud Theatre with Rafe Spall taking over from Ifans as ‘the most honest and decent person in Maycomb.’

And there were bumps in the road before that; the play almost didn’t make it to Broadway with Lee’s real life lawyers, acting on behalf of her estate, litigating against the production having taken offence to Sorkin’s changes. The result was that some of the edits had to go. Finch here does not drink alcohol, keep a gun or curse mildly as Sorkin had intended (if you consider ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Goddamit’ as cursing at all).

Poppy Lee Friar and Rafe Spall. Photo: Marc Brenner

However, other edits have prevailed in what seems an attempt to give To Kill a Mockingbird a greater resonance in the 21st century. Here, the accused, Tom Robinson (Jude Owusu), and Finch’s black maid Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete) are given enlarged roles, going a little way to offset the overwhelmingly white focus on a play that is about racial injustice against the black community.

Sorkin has clearly tried to tie elements of the play to modern America and the alt-right. There are also not-to-subtle hints of anti-semitism against Finch, who it is hinted is secretly Jewish, by Bob Ewell (Patrick O’Kane), the father of the alleged victim Mayella Ewell (Poppy Lee Friar), and with Ewell spouting about the whites who built America, it would not have been a surprise to hear a throwaway line about making America great again – but Sorkin resists.

Jude Oswusu. Photo. Marc Brenner

The play has grown on its journey across the Atlantic, now running at 2 hours 50 minutes – 15 minutes longer than the version playing on Broadway. But such is the hold that the production has on our attention that the near-three hours speed by. This is largely due to the direction from Bartlett Sher. Sorkin’s narrative weaves the courtroom scenes with the events that preceded the trial and Sher expertly navigates the journey between the two.

It is also largely because of the mesmerising acting across the cast. Spall’s understated performance is a marvel – he is calm and collected until the moment Finch can no longer hold it in. He also manages to capture the contradictions of Finch, giving him the qualities of a tragic hero. There is always a risk in casting adults as children, however here they are expertly played. Finch’s daughter Scout, played by Dill Gwyneth Keyworth, is full of the tomboyish energy described in the book while Dill, a friend of Scout and her older brother Jem (Harry Redding), is played with hilarious, scene stealing style by David Moorst.

Dill Gwyneth Keyworth, Harry Redding, David Moorst and Rafe Spall. Photo: Marc Brenner

Perhaps the most striking performance of the night is Poppy Lee Friar’s delivery of Mayella Ewell’s testimony at the trial. Wronged by her father and the society into which she has been born, we see how hate can stem from inequality and socialisation. Ewell transforms from a meek, broken daughter into a vengeful, rejected woman, spitting vile hatred across the courtroom.

Outside of the acting, it would be remiss not to mention the set by Miriam Beuther who turns the mammoth stage of the Gielgud into a barn which itself transforms into the court, Finch’s porch, the jailhouse and the home of Boo Radley (Harry Attwell), the strange neighbour who holds the children’s fascination.

When the play drew to its conclusion, the standing ovation was immediate – as soon as the curtain fell the audience were on their feet. And rightly so; Sorkin has crafted a masterpiece. It is easy to envisage To Kill a Mockingbird running in the West End for years to come – it has all the qualities of a production that should stay; it entertains us, makes us laugh, makes us cry and, most importantly, it makes us think.

To Kill a Mockingbird is at the Gielgud Theatre until 13 August.