It’s nerve-wracking to join an already successful West End theater production halfway through — but the actors have to do what the actors have to do.
Said Niall Buggy, stage stalwart of To Kill a Mockingbird, who is about to join London’s West End.
On Monday 15 August, the Dublin-born actor, who has lived in London for more than 50 years, will replace Jim Norton as Judge Taylor in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the Harper Lee classic.
On the same day, Richard Coyle replaced Rafe Spall as Atticus Finch in the London production directed by Bartlett Sher ), which has sold out at the Gielgud Theatre since it opened in March.
“I was asked if I would take the role of Judge Taylor, so I went to the play and of course I was blown away by it, it’s an incredible work,” Mr Badge told The Irish Post this week.
“It’s done brilliantly, and I think, while it’s nerve-wracking because one person takes over a role in a relatively short period of time, it’s also exciting.
“I have to do it, it’s such a remarkable story, and it’s so important right now.
“I think it has always been and always will be. It’s still important to all of us, generation after generation.”
Harper Lee’s debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960 to address racial injustice.
It was an instant hit—it won a Pulitzer Prize and was published in ten languages within a year of its release.
Considered one of the great classics of modern American literature, the book went on to become a global phenomenon—more than 50 million copies are in print today.
Set in 1934 Alabama, the story provides some of literature’s most iconic characters – including attorney Atticus Finch, tragically aggrieved Tom Robinson, Atticus’ daughter S. Court, her brother Jem, the reclusive Arthur Radley and the sympathetic Judge Taylor.
From a children’s perspective, it’s a heavy story with a lot to say.
So how does it translate on stage?
“In the book Tom Robinson’s trial scene dominated the story, but in this show, Aaron Sorkin moved the story from Atticus’ house to the courtroom,” explained Mr Badge.
“It goes back and forth, it doesn’t stay on the pitch the whole game – it goes from one to the other and you hear the kids tell you stories, which is exciting and fun.
“From a child’s perspective it’s an important part of the story of To Kill a Mockingbird,” he added.
“Did you know that robins are not aggressive?” the actor asked.
“Most birds have some aggression, but mockingbirds don’t, so I was told.
“We don’t have robins in this country, but they have them in America, and you have them in New York, where you can meet them.
“It’s so funny, to me, that must have been what Harper Lee had in mind when he wrote the book.”
The visionary writer, who died in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in 2016 at the age of 89, avoided all publicity about her despite the worldwide success of her iconic book .
It seems she prefers her character to speak.
In Judge Taylor, she created a man who tried to defy convention at a time when many of his peers were openly racist.
“My character would have grown up in a generation that was absolutely racist and probably really pro-slavery, but he came from his own soul and told a different story,” Mr Badge claimed.
“There were some white men at the time, and one of them was Judge Frank Johnson, the attorney who supported Rosa Parks in Rosa Parks’ civil rights case.
“Certainly Judge Taylor would not let Tom Robinson go, which is a very shocking aspect of the story,” he added.
“It was really shocking that Atticus Finch didn’t drop him either.”
According to the actor, like Lee’s book, once the audience leaves the drama, there’s a lot to think about.
“There are so many interesting stories in the play that you can discuss and think about after you leave the theatre,” Mr Badge said.
“It’s important to have a play like this on stage,” he added, “very important.”
“What’s interesting about To Kill a Mockingbird at this point is that it’s packing on the West End,” he added.
“The West End is underperforming right now, but the play is coming to an end, and it’s because of the story, and the story is doing it.
“The storytelling does the same.
“It was a very fun and engaging night,” explained Mr Buggy.
“It’s the old thing we do in Ireland called storytelling. Storytelling is really the oldest aspect of drama.
“This show, this work is moving forward and keeping it going, and I think that’s why it’s been so successful with the public.”
The show’s popularity so far means that some stage nerves remain for Mr Badge as he prepares to begin his time as Judge Taylor.
“I’ve never run a race, never in my life,” he admitted.
“The company has been very kind to both Richards [Coyle] and myself. Even though they were performing, they kept coming in and rehearsing with us.
“It’s still a little nerve-wracking,” he said with a laugh, “but we’re going to do everything we can to get through this.”
For Mr. Badge, the show adds to the long list of iconic productions he has been involved in over a long career.
For over 50 years, he has starred in Samuel Beckett’s “The Last Tape of Clapp,” Seán O’Casey’s “Plow and the Star,” Seba Sebastian Barry’s “Blueberry Hill” and Brian Friel’s “Translation and Noble”.
Does he particularly like classic, critically acclaimed texts?
“Oh, you know actors don’t make choices, they just get or don’t get the job,” he admits.
“But I’ve been lucky enough to be in the role over the years.
“I’ve had some great plays over the years, and it’s been a great play, and I’m lucky to be able to do that because I’m lucky to keep working and keep going.
“I’ve never done anything else [but acting] real. “
The actor has even managed to stay busy during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 and 2021.
“I’ve been lucky during the pandemic,” he admits, “and I’ve been working.”
“I played a small part of Maggie Smith’s husband in a movie,” he explained of his work on the 2020 film “Miracle Club,” which has yet to be released.
“It was great to work with her,” he added.
“I have just myself and herself one day, all day, and that’s a joy.
“She’s 88, which is a good age. She’s amazing, amazing, so I love doing it.”
So, what are the other highlights of his career so far?
“Blueberry Hill was a highlight, as was Brian Friel’s Aristocrats and Translations,” he said.
“Oh, I’m going to say every game now, aren’t I?” He smiled.
“But I’m lucky these are wonderful plays. They’re extraordinary works that I think can improve the quality of life.
“They make a huge difference in our lives – whether you’re on stage or in the audience, that’s always important in this business.”
Catch Niall Buggy To Kill a Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre in London from Monday 15th August – click here for tickets