Muddy Reviews: Of Mice and Men, Theatre Royal, Brighton
I met an old school friend last summer after a gap of about 15 years. “Remember I told you a girl cried in class when we read Of Mice and Men?” she asked her daughter, “Well, this was her.”
Yes, that was me. I still can’t believe I was the only one; my classmates must have had hearts of stone. So, it was with hanky at the ready that I approached the play adapted from the John Steinbeck classic that is currently showing at Brighton’s Theatre Royal.
The story, set in America’s Great Depression, concerns two migrant workers, George and Lennie, who, unusually as it turns out, travel together. Lennie has learning difficulties but is strong – a dangerous combination, as we learn early on from the fate of his pet mouse. Their arrival at a new farm creates an air of tension.
Because Lennie is a liability, he and George don’t stay anywhere long enough to get together the stake they need to buy the little farmstead they dream of, yet this goal is inextricably tied up in the pair’s friendship. Their dream of independence is infectious, so what starts akin to a fairytale becomes both tantalisingly close and threatened as other men at the farm get wind of the plan.
Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men from his own experiences as a labourer and many of the characters are composites of people he met. The novella adapts well into a play and is true to Steinbeck’s dialogue. Even after all these years the speech was very familiar to me, perhaps because it contains so many repetitions: instructions from George to Lennie to keep out of trouble; the fantasy of the plot of land that Lennie likes hearing and George likes telling.
In fact, Steinbeck had intended Of Mice and Men as a practice in writing for theatre and it was adapted into a play shortly after its 1937 publication. (The Playable Novel feature in the programme tells you more, but if you’re unfamiliar with the story be warned, it contains spoilers).
The camaraderie, love even, between the play’s two central characters creates suspicion. Is George cheating Lennie of his wages? Is there something a bit Brokeback Mountain about their relationship? For the most part, the other farmhands prove as unsentimental towards their fellow humans as they are towards animals and they’re unable to handle difference whether that be in a person’s age, race, sex or intellect.
Curley’s wife, whose name we never know, is an outsider even in this world of loners and we’re left wondering if she is the ‘tart’ the men brand her, lonely as she says, or a combination of both. Her own dreams – of Hollywood stardom (an addition for the play) – suddenly make George and Lennie’s all the more credible.
It’s difficult to play someone with learning difficulties without straying into embarrassing caricature but Kristian Phillips as Lennie hits the right note of child-like enthusiasm and naivety that comes across in the book. Ben Stott as elderly Candy is the most recognisable cast member with numerous TV appearances under his belt (my friend knew him from Lovejoy). Incidentally, Candy’s lovely dog (a little spritely-looking for what is described as an elderly mutt, though I’m assured it has arthritis) was cast after a local search when a replacement was needed at short notice.
The backdrop to the set is a sky of ever-changing hues that in certain scenes gives a good suggestion of the wide open vistas of rural America. If you’re in the balconies you’ll also see a crack across the stage, something not uncommon in dustbowl landscapes and intended as symbolic by the set designer. I particularly liked the sense of scale given by the large piece of farm machinery that Lennie and Curley’s wife climb on in a pivotal scene.
Unusually, the wings are open so you can often glimpse other characters sitting waiting behind the main action. There’s also a folk band, including a banjo, producing live music that adds to the atmosphere. The play opens with This Land is Your Land, an ironic choice as land ownership is such a central plot point.
Though this is a close evocation of Steinbeck’s original I was disappointed that the final line of the novella was cut from the play. To my mind it’s one of the most devastatingly memorable last lines in literature. If you don’t know it, see the play, then look it up. I challenge you not to shed a tear.
Of Mice and Men, produced by Touring Consortium Theatre Company and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre is on at the Theatre Royal, Brighton until Saturday 23 April. Tickets start from £12.90 atgtickets.com