I was more than a little intrigued to discover whether the opening night of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at the Theatre Royal, endlessly studied by bored fifteen year olds around the UK, would be able to breathe new life into the novella. With the designers going to great lengths to recreate the images all readers hold in their heads of the dusty Northern Californian landscape, Steinbeck’s America, destitute yet still touched with optimism, has been successfully translated from novel to stage.
Following the lives of two great friends, the large and friendly giant Lennie, and his protector George, the play looks at the difficulties of holding onto the American Dream during the Great Depression. Finding work at a ranch, having fled their previous employment in Weed, Lennie and George come into contact with a variety of characters, all facing their own crushing sense of failure and entrapment. Saoirse-Monica Jackson, playing Curley’s Wife, captures this perfectly in her series of monologues, interwoven with Lennie’s nearing the climax of the play. Her pouting doll-like features take on a worrying child-like significance as the audience is informed of her lost dreams, Curley’s Wife insisting that she could have been in the movies, that she was ‘a natural’. The tender, shared moment as both characters look out to the audience, each caught in their separate fantasies, adds an important layer of sensitivity to a piece which is largely dominated by masculine dialogue. Special mention must be given to Kristian Phillips for his depiction of Lennie. The innocence of this character, shown through his constant desire to hold and caress animals, is carefully juxtaposed with his accidental, violent tendencies in more than one worrying foreshadowing of the tragedy to come.
“Set designer, Liz Ascroft, was interested in capturing both how vast and how claustrophobic the stage can be made to feel for its characters”
The relationship between Lennie and George (played by William Rodell) is convincing and allows for lighter moments of comedy to punctuate the drama. The repeated exchange of Lennie attempting to smuggle a dead mouse or Slim’s pup into the folds of his overalls, and George’s subsequent scolding, makes for more than one audience laugh. Dave Fishley also adds some variety as the crippled, black labourer Crooks, who swiftly transitions from high-pitched outbursts – as more than one white person enters the private space of his bedroom – and sudden, melancholy reflections on the state of being alone, in a single scene. Ben Stott is well cast to portray Curley’s Napoleon complex as his weedy stature (emphasised by his slim fit waistcoat) and quick, jumping movements make him constantly appear inferior when surrounded by the other more burley masculine figures on stage.
Set designer, Liz Ascroft, was interested in capturing both how vast and how claustrophobic the stage can be made to feel for its characters. The moveable pieces of set, appearing from the ceiling or being pushed on and off stage by the cast in a Brechtian fashion, constantly reshape the acting space; this means that the first scene, open and barren, disturbed only by the thrush signifying its outdoor setting , is immediately transformed with the presence of set used to create the confined ranch. The muted browns and yellows are continued in all aspects of the stage design; only when the chase begins and Lennie and George’s American Dream is put in danger does the backdrop of the sky gradually change from pale shades to a bloody red.
“To appreciate the conclusion and alleviate some of the density of the first half, the break should have come much sooner”
The positioning of the interval means that the first half is the weightiest, although the second carries the majority of the action. This has perhaps been a deliberate dramatic choice on the part of director Roxana Silbert, as the closing scene of the first half intimates the tragedy which will conclude the play. However, after battling with the line for the ladies’ loo in the interval and disengaging from the drama, this means that there is not enough time to fully immerse yourself before the play comes to its finish. The events feel rushed – gun shot, black out, applause. To appreciate the conclusion and alleviate some of the density of the first half, the break should have come much sooner.
Of Mice and Men is known to have a play-like structure, with long sequences of description, minimal settings and an emphasis upon dialogue, suggesting that it is one of the easier novels to take to the stage. Whilst in many respects the performance impressed, in the set design and several of the actors’ portrayals, perhaps more could have been done in the second half to bring the building drama to fruition.
Of Mice and Men is running at Theatre Royal until Saturday 5th March. For more information see here