Review – To Kill A Mockingbird, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 18th October 2014

To Kill A MockingbirdI was not one of those children who, willingly or otherwise, read To Kill A Mockingbird whilst at school. I’d heard of it, of course, and knew friends who had read it; but it was never part of my literature syllabus and, at that age, for my reading leisure, if it wasn’t a whodunit or a play I wasn’t interested. Unlike Mrs Chrisparkle, who read the book willingly at a tender age and impressed her schoolteachers with her as yet never before seen keenness. Arthur Franks & Ava PotterI’m not sure those teachers ever got a second chance to be impressed, so I hope they appreciated the experience. For years Mrs C had been on at me to read it, and for years I said yes I must, placing it in the “pending without intention” desk tray in my brain. But then one day, not that long ago, I relented, and discovered for myself what a gripping and emotional read it is.

Connor BrundishThe last time we saw cast members reading from an eponymous book on stage was in Gatz, the experimental reading/acting production of the Great Gatsby that takes an entire day to achieve. I loved its riskiness, its innovative approach, its willingness to turn established art forms on their heads; as you know, gentle reader, I much prefer a creative, experimental failure to a lazy success. But, in the final analysis, Gatz was quite boring really, and proved that a book is a book and a play is a play. So when the ensemble for To Kill A Mockingbird emerged from the Leicester Curve stalls, clambered up onto the stage and portentously raised and lowered their paperback copies of the book (each one a different edition, David Carlylewhich is a nice touch), I had a slight feeling of foreboding. However, there was no need for alarm. They don’t read the entire book, they take it in turns to read individual passages, so that you get a dozen different voices (male and female) each speaking as though they were Scout, the six year old narrator of this story of growing up set against the injustice of racial discrimination in 1960s Alabama. Each passage will introduce an acted scene, so it becomes an alternating sequence of acting and reading, which keeps it feeling very fresh.

Jamie KennaIt wasn’t long into the play when the relatively well-to-do matinee audience at the Curve gasped audibly as Scout used the “n” word in her conversation. The “n” word appears quite a few times actually, in this 1970 adaptation of the book by Christopher Sergel. I’m not sure how you could express the discrimination of the time without using it, but it is interesting to reflect that there hasn’t been a drive to modernise some of the language for the 2014 audience. But there you are, you have been warned.

Natalie GradyI’m sure you know the story – and if you don’t, and intend to see the play, then why should I spoil it for you? Suffice to know that Scout and Jem are the children of Atticus Finch, lawyer, and they and their friend Dill play, run errands, make discoveries and do all the things that kids do in their neighbourhood, as they learn from first-hand experience what separates right from wrong. Atticus’ watchword is equality, and he encourages the children to think the same way.Zackary Momoh He proves his sense of equality by becoming the Defence Lawyer for black farmworker Tom Robinson in his trial for raping the white woman Mayella Ewell, a decision that doesn’t go down too well in some sectors of Maycomb County. The trial is a cathartic moment for the community as a whole, for the protagonists in the case, and for Atticus’ family and friends. Scout, Jem and Dill get to see their community through different eyes as they start to leave their childhood behind. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Susan Lawson-ReynoldsThis lucid, eloquent production was originally produced by the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. By using a set that resembles a garden, with chalk lines drawn on the floor to demarcate the various areas of the town, this transfer brings the outside indoors with remarkable ease and effectiveness. Those members of the ensemble who are not in any particular scene sit at the sides of the stage following the action in their paperbacks. The whole impression is one of breathing dramatic life into the written word, whilst still having absolute respect for its original format.

Daniel BettsThere are three young actors each playing the roles of Scout, Jem and Dill at different performances. Obviously I can only speak for the ones we saw, but they were amazing. Arthur Franks’ Jem has all the confidence of the older sibling, and therefore further to fall when Atticus corrects his behaviour; and his idealistic expectation of what the jury will decide, as well as his overall view on life is heart-warming to see. Connor Brundish gives a terrifically impish performance as the socially advanced yet often unsure Dill, bringing out the comic elements of the role very effectively. But Ava Potter’s Scout is a performance of true delight; remarkably assured, full of attitude, very funny, very moving – quite brilliant. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a child actor receive a standing ovation before.

Ryan PopeDaniel Betts as Atticus is the only adult performer to retain his own role throughout and not be part of the ensemble, and it works very well as a device to set him apart from the rest of the community, and make him more of a loner. He looks and behaves just like how you would imagine Atticus to be; kindly, wise, learned, and authoritative but with humility. It’s a great performance. The rest of the ensemble work really well together but each actor also brings terrific insight and identity to their own minor characters. David Carlyle was superb as the Prosecuting Lawyer, Mr Gilmer; slightly foppish, posing with his Geoff Aymercigarette, bringing an effeteness to the otherwise unsophisticated Maycomb County. There was no doubting his belligerence towards the helpless Tom Robinson, played with simplicity and great emotion by Zackary Momoh. There’s no way he would have had the physical dexterity to carry out that attack. Susan Lawson-Reynolds brought huge heart to the character of Calpurnia, helping Atticus instil decency and discipline in the children, whilst still retaining her sense of fun. Natalie Grady was a wonderfully straight-talking no-nonsense Victoria BewickMiss Maudie, Geoff Aymer a very kindly but splendidly ineffectual Reverend Sykes, Ryan Pope a despicably low-life Bob Ewell, and Victoria Bewick a memorably tormented Mayella, lashing out using attack as her best form of defence. But each member of the ensemble made a great contribution to the overall atmosphere of community life and clarity of narration; and Phil King punctuated the proceedings with some very enjoyable and wistful incidental music.

Phil KingThis is an excellent production that brought a tear to Mrs C’s eye (not mine, I must be more hard-hearted) and really tells the story well. It works as a play in its own right, but I have to admit, primarily it made me want to go back and read the book again. This production is in the early stages of a very lengthy tour that goes right round to next summer, visiting Cardiff, High Wycombe, Cambridge, Birmingham, Bath, Sheffield, Chichester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Nottingham, Dartford, Milton Keynes, Southampton, Leeds, Plymouth, Newcastle, Cheltenham, Richmond and Salford before ending up at the Barbican next July. I told you it was an intensive tour! An accomplished production suitable for all the family but that pulls no punches and tells it how it is. I predict very good business for these theatres, so get booking now!

Review – Eden End, Royal, Northampton, 16th June 2011

Eden EndIt’s been a long time since I’ve seen a J B Priestley play. I think the last one was Stephen Daldry’s Inspector Calls which Mrs C and I saw in London sometime in the 1990s, but we were stuck at the back of the Garrick Theatre in London with the actors so distant they might just as well have been in Cardiff for all that I could connect with them. We saw a production of “I Have Been Here Before” at the Wycombe Swan also in the 90s with Mr Rumbold from Are You Being Served as the mysterious German Doktor. Before then it was just a production of An Inspector Calls at the Shaw Theatre in London in 1978 and a TV adaptation of Dangerous Corner around the same time.

So it was good to have some renewed exposure to this 20th century British stalwart. “Eden End” is not so often performed – perhaps because it doesn’t have the beguiling “time tricks” of Inspector Calls and Dangerous Corner. And maybe it is easy to see why it could have fallen out of favour in this modern age – what could a play from 1934 set in 1912, that doesn’t really have a very strong storyline, have that is relevant to today?

Well you just have to see it to answer that question. Laurie Sansom’s production of Eden End takes a simple tale and makes it riveting. As usual he has brought together a cast that works wonders as an ensemble. You get the feeling that in every performance the actors get a new truth out of the material, so fresh is their connection with the audience. On one level the play is about the return of an actress daughter to the family home after eight years’ absence, and the emotional ripples it creates through those left behind. On another, it reveals the reality of “the other man’s grass is always greener”; how people cope with the knowledge that life could be better somewhere else. And are they right? Very Chekhovian, Laurie Sansom refers to its similarities with “The Cherry Orchard” in the programme; there’s also a lot of “Three Sisters” in there too, as everyone has their own private Moscow.

Fantasy and reality are blurred with the brilliant set – ostensibly a traditional drawing room, but with a stylised stage curtain as the back wall and stage footlights around the edge. The fantasy suggests a glittering stage career elsewhere, but does the reality agree with that? If you saw the recent production of “Love Love Love” by Mike Bartlett, it features a daughter character who is bitter at her failed music career because no one told her when she was young that she simply wasn’t good enough. The returning actress Stella also implies that the fantasy of a brilliant acting career was a much more comforting place than the reality of being barely adequate at it.

Charlotte EmmersonStella is played by Charlotte Emmerson, fab when last seen here at the Royal as the Duchess of Malfi. It’s a beautiful performance – combining the apparent starry glamour of her profession with vulnerability in the uncertainty of whom she loves, and the worry of whether she can sustain a career. At one stage, for a little while fantasy reigns as she meets up again with long lost love Farrant; then reality returns in the form of her ex-husband. Charlotte Emmerson wonderfully portrays this movement into the light and then back into darkness.

Jonathan FirthFarrant, played by Jonathan Firth, is also a winning creation. What could easily be just another stock Edwardian stiff-upper-lip chappy with a gammy leg, becomes a real person who overcomes the reservations of the era to tell Stella how he feels. Overflowing with decency, his sense of correctness and his openness are very genuinely acted and I enjoyed his performance very much. There’s an excellent moment when he encounters Charles Appleby. His reactions are simple, but perfectly executed.

Daisy DouglasStella’s sister, Lilian, played by Daisy Douglas, comes across as deeply repressed and embittered, left behind to look after Father, sacrificing her own happiness for the perceived selfishness of her sister. There’s a great scene between the two of them where they challenge each other’s motives for how life turned out. Gripping stuff. You felt some sympathy for her – but also appreciated that she’s a bit cunning. Daisy Douglas puts over the shades of grey with the character very effectively.

Nick HendrixHer brother Wilfred – looking like how you would imagine a 24 year old Gordon Brown to look but don’t let that put you off – is played by Nick Hendrix. Dashing and ineffectual, still patronised by the family retainer Sarah, sniffing (largely metaphorically) at the skirt of a barmaid, wasting his days at home in idleness, it’s a great study of youthful underachievement. It was very rewarding to see that even in 1934 young people couldn’t get the jokes in those old Punch cartoons! His build-up routines to ringing the girlfriend were very nicely done too. According to the programme, Nick Hendrix is fresh out of RADA and this is his first professional engagement. Well we thought he was absolutely first class, and are sure he’s going to have a great career.

Daniel BettsDaniel Betts plays Charles Appleby, Stella’s estranged husband, a bit of a jack-the-lad actor, dressed like you would imagine Max Miller would if he had an office job. Cheeky and charismatic, you could see why Stella might have fallen for him – and after his night out with Wilfred, you could also see why she would have gone right off him. I have to commend Daniel Betts on his brilliant drunk act. Completely credible, nothing farcical or over the top about it; really well observed and very very funny. Mrs C and I were not entirely sure about Charles and Wilfred’s music-hall song and dance act between Acts Two and Three; they did it very well and I can see how it continues the theme of blur between fantasy and reality; but on the whole, we didn’t “get it”. I note that it’s not in the original text.

William Chubb William Chubb’s Dr Kirby was very convincing as the elderly GP father with a care for his community and a gentle cynicism about life as a whole. Sarah was played by Carol Macready and was a subtle reading of the role of the old retainer, both cantankerous and kindly; occasionally wanting to keep hold of her old niche as authoritative nurse with the children, but knowing her power is gone. When, at the end, she is left behind in a very Chekhovian moment, and she realises Stella has gone without the parcel – I confess it brought a tear to my eye.

Carol MacreadyThis is also a production really suitable for congratulating the usually unsung heroes. I’ve already mentioned the imaginative set of Sara Perks, suggesting a balance between reality and fantasy, stability and instability (the traditional room but set on a jaunty angle) and openness and secrecy (the back room that lights up to reveal Lilian desperately alone). I also thought the music by Jon Nicholls accompanied the mood perfectly, never monopolising a scene, gently suggesting more than it explained – lovely quiet sounds of an orchestra tuning up, for instance; so much more subtle than other sound effects we’ve been subjected to recently.

The sad feeling I had at the end of the play reflected how, throughout the whole play, the emotions were strong but beautifully understated. This gave the whole production a surprising additional energy. It’s a quiet gem, and I’m glad it’s going to be touring after its Northampton run. I recommend it highly.