To Kill A Mockingbird: Aaron Sorkin breathes vital new life into a classic ****

To Kill A Mockingbird

Harry Redding (Jem Finch) David Moorst (Dill Harris) and Gwyneth Keyworth as Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird - Credit: Marc Brenner

It's impossible, post George Floyd, to treat Harper Lee's depiction of the state-sanctioned murder of a Black man as a period piece.

But West Wing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin rightly realised the iconic 1960 novel needed a 21st Century workover to reflect both the changing discourse around race and its resonance in Trump era America.

Out have gone tropes about the victims of racial injustice being grateful to white saviours. Rafe Spall's small town lawyer Atticus Finch who takes on the unwinnable case of a black man accused or raping a white teenager in the deep south, is no paragon, but a dignified, flawed, rumpled, impassioned figure, forced to interrogate his whiteness, unshakeable belief in America's justice system, and the moral inconsistency of telling his children to treat viciously racist "friends and neighbours" with respect.

Poppy Lee Friar as Mayella Ewell and Rafe Spall as Atticus Finch

Poppy Lee Friar as Mayella Ewell and Rafe Spall as Atticus Finch - Credit: Marc Brenner

Sorkin also amps up the anger and objection of Finch's maid Calpurnia (A powerful Pamela Nomvette) who has raised his children, and chief accuser Bob Ewell (Patrick O'Kane) is lent a right wing ideology for hounding the innocent Tom Robinson.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Pamela Nomvete (Calpurnia) - Credit: Marc Brenner

It's always helped that the Alabama town of Maycomb is seen through the eyes of children, and director Bartlett Sher lets a quirky, humorous trio control the narrative - stepping out to pass comment, or conjure the courtroom from thin air to hear key witness testimony (Miriam Buether's versatile set fluidly allows for constructing and deconstructing locations).

Harry Redding's defiant Jem is starting to question his father's values, pugnacious Tom Boy Scout (Gwyneth Keyworth) carries the show, and David Moorst's determinedly odd Dill poignantly reveals his own neglect.

Jude Owusu as Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird

Jude Owusu as Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird - Credit: Marc Brenner

We know from A Few Good Men that Sorkin can pen an electrifying court scene, and so it is here. Jude Owusu oozes reproachful dignity as Robinson, while the Ewells angrily voice the betrayal of a white underclass. The jury, who knowingly send an innocent man to the electric chair are mere empty seats.

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It's only at the end that time hangs heavier, and Sorkin has trouble wrapping things up, with flawed hero Finch offering a Biblical quote and a hope it's hard to feel. 

To Kill A Mockingbird is at the Gielgud Theatre until November 19.