Courtroom drama has a peculiar capacity to grip an audience - whether it's live feeds from the O. J. Simpson/Oscar Pistorius sagas or the trial scenes from

The Merchant of Venice

.

Even when the outcome is known, we are swept up by the thrill of "battle" in which lofty ethical imperatives collide with the messy circumstances of particular individuals. In Harper Lee's much-loved novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the innocence of childhood illuminates the moral choices confronting simple folk who have become accustomed to the ingrained bigotry of a depression-era Alabama.

Auckland Theatre Company has assembled a rotating cast of talented young actors to present the quizzical perspective of the children who take centre stage in Christopher Sergel's adaptation. On opening night, Billie McKessar gave a wonderfully assured performance as Scout - the straight-talking tomboy whose presence dissipates the inflamed passions of a lynch mob.

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Simon Prast brings an unassuming decency to the lawyer Atticus Finch as he rises to the challenge of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman while Scott Willis, as Bob Ewell, presents a chilling vision of redneck hatred. Ian Mune is a suitably gravelly Judge and Claire Dougan gives a memorable performance as an embittered widow while doubling as the town gossip.

Pacific Island actors take on the African-American roles with James Maeva sympathetically expressing the powerlessness of the accused while Goretti Chadwick convincingly establishes the no-nonsense manner of house-keeper Calpurnia.

Director Colin McColl conjures up a rural community through an accumulation of vivid fragments and the large cast deploys heavy accents to evoke the ambience of the Deep South. Andrew Foster's abstract set creates a versatile performance space that is enlivened by Bryan Caldwell's atmospheric lighting and John Gibson's soundtrack effectively draws on American folk traditions to reinforce the story's shifting moods.

Theatre preview

• What: To Kill A Mockingbird

• Where: The Civic, to May 22.

• Reviewer: Paul Simei-Barton