REVIEW: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee at Chichester Festival Theatre until Saturday January 24

To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo: Johan Persson PPP-150120-121945001

To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo: Johan Persson PPP-150120-121945001

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It’s only through the clear and uncluttered gaze of a child that you can see the dark distortions of the adult world.

That sentiment was never more true than in Harper Lee’s seminal 1960 novel.

In the struggle for civil rights and racial equality, Lee’s masterpiece is arguably one of the most important works of the 20th century.

President Obama described it as ‘an unforgettable tale of courage and conviction and doing what was right, no matter what the cost.’

But what makes it so rapier sharp is that it is revealed through the experiences of childhood.

Set in the deep south of America in the 1930s it tells of small town lawyer Atticus Finch (Daniel Betts) who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.

At its heart, this is a human drama of justice, racial discrimination, and hatred.

Yet it is seen through the lives of Atticus’ two children Scout and Jem as they grow up in this close-knit community.

With the humour, irony and pathos that comes from a child’s description of events the worst of human bigotry is brought into sharp focus.

The book translated perfectly into an Oscar winning film starring Gregory Peck but converting it into a stage play was always more challenging - especially if the sense of childhood innocence and the author’s descriptive poetry were to remain central.

Which is why Christopher Sergel’s adaptation is such a triumph.

From the outset it puts Lee’s novel at the heart of the action.

The cast begin by reading lines from an eclectic mix of old editions as some literary group might do when studying the work.

As they read, they take on the persona of the characters in a way that the action is born from the writer’s words.

The simplicity of the plot is perfectly retained - and it is this honest approach which ensures that the play delivers such a powerful punch.

There are some superb performances, from the three children and Zackary Momoh as Tom Robinson.

But it is Betts who commands the stage like a modern-day Gregory Peck - and who mesmerises audiences by never overplaying his hand.

This was Lee’s only novel but it is perhaps one of the most studied texts of its time.

This latest production reaffirms the power of the written word; and reveals too that in different circumstances the harsh traits of human nature remain sadly as relevant today.