Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad family, and their pursuit of the American dream. It is strange and confusing, though in the midst of the disparity and despair there was something recognisable and hopeful about the production.

The director, Abbey Wright, as she stated in the programme, wanted to highlight the relevance of The Grapes of Wrath to a modern audience; the similarities between the migrant crises and the necessity of creating community. She worked with the design team to create a world outside of time, there are many hark backs to the Great Depression era through the main characters’ costumes, but they are paired with objects which are very definitely not, including a bright orange Homebase bucket and a full superman costume, with cape.

”There was an incongruity in the placement of the musical numbers (which made it start to feel a little like The Grapes of Wrath: The Musical!)”

This clashing of eras was also shown cleverly by the music, composed by Matt Regan which included instruments like the harmonica and fiddle alongside a keyboard and electric guitar. There was an incongruity in the placement of the musical numbers (which made it start to feel a little like The Grapes of Wrath: The Musical!) that was sometimes slightly irksome, and though some breaks from the heavy dialogue were needed, sometimes the dance breaks just felt unnecessary and self-indulgent.

”Though slightly abstract it worked with the rest of the set and the lights casting the reflections of the water onto the roof of the auditorium”

Lighting worked well to create the sense of space and atmosphere in the otherwise sparse set especially at the end of the first act where the deep oranges and yellows really gave a sense of the deep south and the Joad family’s hope of the American dream. Another part that was visually effective was the river that was dug out into the front of the stage. Though slightly abstract it worked with the rest of the set and the lights casting the reflections of the water onto the roof of the auditorium.

The cast was unbelievably large, with 16 main characters and a diverse supporting ensemble of 40 local people from around Nottingham which gave a real sense of scope to the scenes which needed a large congregation, providing a sense of size and crowding not often seen on stage.

The main actors were very competent and engaging especially André Squire’s Tom Joad who held the audience’s attention whenever he was on stage, and Julia Swift’s endearing Ma, who you couldn’t help but feel sorry for as she struggled to keep the family together.

As a play, which is set in the south of America, it was clear that rich accents would be needed, however, as an audience member whose ears aren’t particularly used to the southern drawl I, at times, found the speech difficult to understand, with words and even entire sentences getting completely lost in slurs and mumbles. Also, even as my ears became more accustomed to the accents I found that every so often an actor would slip out of the American accent, momentarily destroying my belief in the plights and emotions of the characters.

”I was left confused and unfortunately wondering whether, as a story, it would have been better left on the page than being adapted for stage”

The incongruity and clashing nature of the piece, though obviously an intention of the director did mean that, upon the rather abrupt ending, I was left confused and unfortunately wondering whether, as a story, it would have been better left on the page than being adapted for stage.

6/10 – A promising work in progress

Daniel McVey

Image credit: Daniel McVey

‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is running at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 8th April. For more information, and to book tickets, see here.

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