Of Mice and Men

Tue 4th – Sat 8th November 2014


Lottie Limb

at 03:23 on 5th Nov 2014



The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and in this case, the play largely holds together on account of a strong central partnership between George and Lennie, and impressive supporting performances. Unfortunately, a weak script, some poor set design choices and awkward structure stripped the play of real dramatic tension.

The symbolic status of George and Lennie – as representatives of the migrant class to whom Steinbeck sends a love letter – combined with the brilliance of Luke Sumner and Max Roberts’s performances, should have ensured them centre stage even more. So much of the appeal of the text comes from a realistic depiction of the life of a migrant ranch worker, and whilst I accept that a theatre must struggle to replicate the lavish descriptions of white-washed walls (though the set did actually do very well on this score), Steinbeck predominantly creates this vision through a dialogue which in this production felt awkward and overly deliberate.

Another issue was the characterisation of Curley’s wife. Julia Kass’s talent is obvious, but the adaptation dubious. Beautiful as her singing is, creating an air of loneliness and solipsistic yearning, her prominence contrasts the slight character of the novella, a shadow in a door. By fleshing out her character, focus is shifted from Lennie and George, emblems of a generation’s struggle, to the minor self-pity of a delusional girl. Her issues are only relevant in her last conversation with Lennie, where her reminiscences challenge our prejudices, and show how the culture of entrapment affects all. Instead, this scene lacks interest by repeating what she has told us throughout, that she “could’ve been in the pitchers”, dissipating suspense.

On top of questionable characterisation, awkward structure disrupts the sickening inevitability of the scene. Lennie kills the pup, and this should linger, paralleling Curley’s Wife’s imminent death. But her over-long duologue with Lennie and Candy’s unnecessary entry undermine dramatic tension, already reduced by the endearing paper mache absurdity that is Lennie’s pup.

The wooden sparseness of the set’s bunk-beds and jagged planks works very well. But an important inside/outside distinction was missing – that of the immense natural beauty versus the harsh struggle of the migrant life. I liked the disjunction between the open-air bed-making of Lennie and George in front of the veiled and menacingly posed Curley and other workers – to an extent. On the one hand, having the cabin visible and workers standing like ghosts suggests entrapment, or the threatening intrusion of onlookers as ‘the dream’ is expressed. On the other hand, it ensures the vision never has enough life to be killed.

The greatest issue with the staging was the increasing space over the play: the stage is smallest when George and Lennie sleep in the open air, without a care, and biggest during Lennie’s killing of Mrs Curley – the moment the dream is strangled. This seems perverse. Surely we should see some initial greenness and breadth, closing in from nature, to the ranch bunks, to Crooks’s abode, and finally to the barn where Curley’s Wife is slain.

These issues hampered a largely excellent cast. Besides Luke Sumner, Max Roberts, and Julia Kass, stood a compelling cast that ensured the play’s climax does hold. Notably, Chris Born’s confidence as a character actor (following his recent turn as Joe Keller in All My Sons) was in powerful evidence, and Gabriel Cagan made a convincing Slim, though “Godlike” seems a little overstated.

Essentially, there must be something that holds the audience’s attention. This need not be a heightened spectacle – an audience’s curiosity can be satisfied even by a convincing vision of real life. But much of this play feels neither realistic enough to be a glimpse of life, nor dramatic enough to be otherwise riveting.

That said, the performances really are fantastically engaging, and the play is both faithful to Steinbeck and commendably self-consistent. Finally, there is something truly appealing about the way scenes overlap atmospherically, like the lingering scent of Mrs Curley's perfume, and swell and soothe internally, that creates an attenuated and evocative ambience and salvages some tension - certainly enough to make this production worth-seeing.



Emily Lawrence; 5th Nov 2014; 17:40:56

Saw it last night; well put, well judged!

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