Jessica Harris sees the Rep’s adaptation of the Steinbeck classic.
Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression in 1930s America, Of Mice and Men is a story of misfits and outcasts. And it is a story of how friendship can be a beacon in the most lonely and dark of times.
The friendship between George, played by Tom McCall, and Lennie, played by Wiliam Young, is central to this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novella, and it is a convincing one. As their journey of migration in search for work takes them to a ranch in California, George retells the dream which he and Lennie share of how, one day, they will buy their own place and live an idyllic life. Lennie, whose daily experience is one of being excluded on account of his learning disability and who is reliant on George’s care and protection, is sustained by this as he imagines a future where he will, in turn, care for rabbits and chickens.
But even as they recount their fantasy, we know it isn’t going to become reality. The sun-baked earth, the ominous noise of cicadas and the effect of flowing water which is red and not blue, foreshadow a future which is not the one they dream of.
As the production progresses, other characters who are also outsiders come into play. There is Candy, played by Lee Ravitz, seen by others as useless and defunct because he is old and infirm. There is Curley’s wife, played by Maddy Hill, alone in a male world who longs to escape to fulfil her dream of becoming a movie star. Crooks, played by Reece Pantry, isolated and lonely as a result of his skin colour, and not allowed into the houses of white men, nor they in his.
There is ample material in this piece for accentuating poignancy and impact. But the production too often feels flat, and moments which promise heightened tension are not well developed. When Carlson takes Candy’s dog out to shoot it on the grounds that, like it’s owner, it is old and no longer able to do its job, the men in the bunkhouse wait for the sound of a gun-shot. The atmosphere is electric. But the shot is a long-time coming and when it does it is muffled and remote – the moment is lost. The point at which Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife, by unwittingly grabbing her throat as he tries to stroke her hair, falls flat and its impact is diminished.
Inaudibility is sometimes a problem, particularly when the actors are upstage – and there is a lot of dialogue in this adaptation. And the drawl of west coast America is clearly a challenge for some of the actors. Combined, these detract from the play’s impact. Set and lighting design work well to help create a sense of mood and tension but cannot make up for issues in delivery of the dialogue.
But there are some real highlights. A cappella singing punctuates the piece and is also used as a means of passing comment on events. The combination of male voices is rich and resonant. In an adaptation which stays authentic to Steinbeck’s book, the production could have taken more of this musical input to remind us of the parallels with today’s world. There are also moments of humour, as Lennie imitates the rabbits and pigeons he plans to own.
The ending, in which George shoots Lennie to prevent him being lynched by the others, is a moment in which the dramatic tension is finally well developed, and the theme of friendship reinforced.
Of Mice and Men was directed by Iqbal Khan using inclusive casting. Set and lighting design were by Ciarán Bagnall, and composer and sound designer was Elizabeth Purnell. It was produced by the Birmingham Rep, Leeds Playhouse and Fiery Angel Production and presented in arrangement with Josef Weinberger Ltd.
This pruduction runs at The Rep until Saturday 8th April 2023. For further information: Birmingham-rep.co.uk
Pics – Mike Senior.