The weather’s still teasing us at the moment, but rain or shine Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre plays on, and it’s one of London’s must-do experiences. Their summer season features some fabulous shows including To Kill A Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice and The Sound of Music.
On a damp and overcast evening at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, it is a wonder that Timothy Sheader’s staging of the Harper Lee classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, transports you not only back to the idealism and innocence of childhood, but right into the heat and racial tensions of the American Deep South.
This low-key reimagining of Christopher Segel’s 1991 adaptation begins with members of the cast popping up amidst the audience and reading from copies of the novel itself; they are in modern dress and accents draw from across the British Isles, with nothing close to a Southern drawl. But then the actors begin to colonise the near empty stage, donning costumes and character, grabbing props and chalking out a child-like depiction of a small Alabama town at their feet. The lights cast a summer haze across the stage and a chap in a waistcoat strums softly on a guitar (Phil King, who both composed and performs the music) as we are introduced to the neighbourhood.
As the story unfolds, excerpts of the narrative weave in and out of the action with a simplicity which, though at first somewhat disconcerting, has the captivating effect of keeping the essence of Lee’s prose alive. Told through the eyes of Scout, a spirited eight year old girl, it is a story of coming of age which, despite heavy themes, is dominated by warmth and humour. It follows Scout, her eccentric best friend Dill and her slightly more emotional older brother Jem as their widowed father, the attorney Atticus Finch, defends a black man against false charges of rape.
The child actors are fantastic – Lucy Hutchinson’s rambunctious dungaree-clad Scout stealing the show with her childish wisdom and effortless one-liners. Robert Sean Leonard, best known for his time as Hugh Laurie’s sidekick in US medical drama House, perfectly captures the quiet moral certainty of Atticus, weary in horn-rimmed spectacles and crumpled linen suit, and leads a strong cast whose southern accents largely convince.
Though the second act’s courtroom drama is perhaps not as powerful as it could have been, twists and turns in the plot coincide with the waning of daylight, and in darkness the stage takes on a whole new atmosphere. Nestled amongst the trees in Queen Mary’s Gardens, the theatre provides a natural and unique setting, day or night, where no performance will ever be the same as the last.
Before the show, there is even the option of getting into the spirit of things with an American South themed dinner; the menu features cornbread, chicken with pork and collard green stuffing, grilled sardines and a pecan and bourbon pie. Pick a candlelit table in the covered dining area and it is yours for the night, your choice of desert and coffee or tea waiting for you in the interval.
As a story charting the journey from innocence to adolescence which so many of us studied at school, To Kill a Mockingbird will strike chords with the young and old alike. Sheader’s production is a clever combination of playful and affecting, sure to warm your heart on a drizzly day.
Runs until 15 June: http://openairtheatre.com