LIKE a hamster wheel, Of Mice And Men keeps coming round, chiming uncomfortably with our times once more with its themes of economic migration, racism, prejudice, misogyny and exclusion.
Last staged at the Playhouse in March 2014 in Mark Rosenblatt’s risk-taking production with a score by Avant-Americana composer, singer and musician Heather Christian, it returns in a powerhouse Leeds Playhouse collaboration with the Second City’s Birmingham Rep and London producers Fiery Angel.
What’s more, John Steinbeck’s novella of the Great American Depression, adapted into a three-act play by the American writer himself in 1937, is in the hands of last summer’s Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony director Iqbal Khan, Birmingham Rep’s associate director.
He parades flair for theatre on a big scale to match the vast and dry American plains – and yet he achieves intimacy too, even in the expanses of the Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre, as the play’s first act charts the bond between two migrant workers, smart George (Tom McCall) and the towering, sweet-natured but dangerously strong Lennie (William Young).
They are men on the move, out of necessity, escaping Lennie’s latest unfortunate incident, desperately looking for work in straitened times and competing with other men to do so. Same story, more than 80 years later, only now men must travel farther against a tide of Brexit bellicosity and Stop The Boats posturing.
Yet, as the itinerant workers establish over a can of beans and a wood fire under the stars, this is a story of durable friendship and survival, one rooted in the hope, always on the horizon, of saving enough nickels to buy their own small farmstead with chickens and rabbits.
This is the American Dream at its most primal, with a shared longing for a place they can call home for the protective, cautious, steely George and the innocent Lennie.
The problem is: fantasy always meets the reality of prejudices, in the tinderbox of the bunkhouse and barns of Curley’s Californian ranch, as hired hands George and Lennie start their latest shift of hard graft and hard bunks.
Curley (Riad Richie) is trigger happy, jumped up, restless over what his neglected, desperately lonely, unloved, Hollywood-fixated new wife – the never named Curley’s Wife (Maddy Hill) – may or may not be doing, in need of company and connection amid so much machismo. He has his eye on her roving eye. Trouble this way comes, tragedy too.
Under Khan’s direction (with resident director Laura Ryder overseeing the tour), the language is muscular, confrontational, enflamed too, carrying the greatest weight, for all the visual impact of Ciaran Bagnall’s set and dustbowl lighting, with its steel frameworks for bunkbeds and huge barns beneath wooden beams that lower as the play progresses to give a sense of compression.
Curley’s Wife is not alone in being subjected to exclusion. So too is Crooks (Reece Pantry), the blacksmith segregated on account of being black, with only his books for company.
McCall, Young, Hill and Pantry go to the heart in devastating, terrific central performances, alongside Lee Ravitz’s Candy, always keen to please as the ultimate team player.
As in 2014, music plays its part with dustbowl country songs on guitar and a dramatic soundscape by Elizabeth Purnell. Puppeteer Jake Benson’s work with Candy’s stinking old dog adds poignancy to that ruthless scene and Kay Wilton’s period costume designs are spot on, especially for Curley’s Wife.
Of Mice And Men will return, you know it will, because times move on but the problems do not. Steinbeck’s eloquence shames us and hope is crushed again, like a puppy in Lennie’s hands.
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