Review: To Kill A Mockingbird at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham

Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch / Credit: Johan Persson []

Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch / Credit: Johan Persson [] - Credit: Archant

I wept; I laughed; I learned. I loved this perfect recapturing of a perfect novel, says Katie Jarvis.

Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch and Jemima Bennett as Scout / Credit: Johan Persson [www.perssonphotog

Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch and Jemima Bennett as Scout / Credit: Johan Persson [] - Credit: Archant

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Where to begin...?

Perhaps with a small town, contained onstage by a cream-and-rust corrugated iron fence. There’s a pecan tree in full foliage, its leaves providing shade from a hostile noon-day sun; its boughs supporting a swinging rope tyre, sometimes with a dungareed child riding high and low, carefully taking in all that’s going on as perspectives change with each wide arc; and sometimes just swinging, empty.

Then, open a book. An important book. Sometimes the person who is reading the story to you - as you relax back, almost reaching out to catch sleep as it saunters past – speaks with a Scottish accent; sometimes it’s someone from Ireland; sometimes that accent speaks of Geordie grit. One time, it’s a young woman weaving the magic from its pages; sometimes a man whose decades of experience resonate with the scenes he’s retelling.

But, listen. What you take from it, above all else, is that no one has read you a story for many-a-year.

The story these people read to you is set in the Deep South – you know that. In the 1930s. When black was the colour of the dirt on the ground. When the prize for each race was awarded with the losing side doing all the running. When justice was a jury that took longer than normal to convict an innocent man.

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And, as you’re lulled by the storytellers; as you’re entranced by the actors; there’s a moment. A moment that jolts and sizzles and electrocutes with uncomfortable intensity. It’s when Atticus Finch, defender of the indefensible, is giving his closing address, in a court room where decisions are tossed like arms caught in cotton gins. He turns, on the stage at Cheltenham Everyman, to the jury, and says, with an authority that turns coughs to silence and brains to fine-tune:

The witnesses for the State, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption...

And you realise he’s turned to you. The audience. The jury.

And you realise, as elections loom and decisions beckon, that he’s told you a truth that resonates from long aeons before Harper Lee picked up her pen and wrote of Jem’s badly-broken arm. A truth that will resonate for long aeons afterwards, too.

The truth is this: life works best if you don’t assume. If you don’t always go with the winning team. And that, if you do nothing else in life, you should question. Question. Question.

Oh my. This was perfection. No tricks. No twists. Just sweet perfection. Moving theatre at its best.

As I sat down, waiting for it all to begin, I worried. First, I worried that such a meaningful book would have pages bent and sections wilfully ripped out by a stage production. Then, as I picked up the programme, I learned that this stage production directed by Timothy Sheader, would involve storytelling: Sheader invites the audience to become ‘part of the story’s re-telling’… “The idea is that we all collectively listen to the story”. Uh-oh, I thought.

And then it began. No curtains opened; no lights dimmed to blackness. A gaggle of people holding copies of To Kill A Mockingbird walked on stage from the aisles.

And, in their various accents, in their various manners, they took it in turns to read from Lee’s pages; pages that define childhood as clearly as hopscotch chalk-marks on the dusty sidewalks. Gradually, their words became flesh, as the characters they spoke of formed in our minds and arrived on stage – Scout (the astonishing Rosie Boore); Jem (Billy Price) and the lovely Charles Baker Harris (Milo Panni), otherwise known as Dill.

These children – cast in trios who take these intensely demanding roles in turn - were utterly captivating. Utterly believable.

In fact, the cast was unassailable in its sheer rightness. Completely. Perfectly. Daniel Betts as Atticus; Victoria Bewick as the downtrodden Mayella, whose morality was shaped by kicks and blows; Zackary Momoh as Tom Robinson, who’s damned if he does and even more damned if he shows sympathy for a white girl whose morality is shaped by kicks and blows.

The worst thing about this play? Trying to pretend that tears weren’t rolling down my cheeks many times over. As Scout, confronting a lawless mob, calls out to Mr Cunningham (Christopher Saul) to say ‘hey’ to his son Walter. As Scout, saved along with Jem from a murderous Bob Ewell (Ryan Pope), quietly and unceremoniously recognises Boo (Christopher Akrill).

Oh my.

I loved this production more than I can say. The whole cast (Geoff Aymer, David Carlyle, Natalie Grady, Jamie Kenna, Luke Potter, Susan Lawson-Reynolds, Connie Walker) was compelling.

The oral storytelling element might change your reactions, says the programme.

Funnily enough, the bit I took away with me last night was something I’d never really thought of before. It was Scout and Jem’s outrage at Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose’s racist, horrifying, sickening attack on Atticus.

And Atticus’s response. A response that ignores the attack; that ignores the part of a fellow human being that is flawed, bleak and unkind.

And focuses on something else instead. The good part of that same person.

Mrs Dubose, he tells Scout, “was the bravest person I ever knew”.

• To Kill A Mockingbird will be at the Everyman until May 2 - For tickets, click here.

• The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573;