Once again, I have to confess my ignorance, gentle reader, and tell you that I have never read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I know that for someone with a degree in English that’s a pretty shoddy state of affairs. Fortunately, Mrs Chrisparkle was also equally ignorant, but that’s A Good Thing Overall when it comes to seeing a dramatization of a well-known story. Experiencing a work of art for the first time, I didn’t know how it was going to end up; so if it is a good story, it ought to keep us spellbound. And it did; eventually. I sensed it was never going to end well – and I wasn’t wrong.
I hadn’t even given any thought to the title, but of course it goes back to the old saying that the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Or, as the late Dowager Mrs C used to delight in enunciating, gang aft agley; she was always a poetry purist. It’s certainly true that those best laid plans end up pretty worthless in this story of the unlikely friendship between intelligent, savvy George Milton and the simple yet sadly brutal Lennie Small. I like the concept of unlikely friendships; I have many of them myself. On the road, trying to find work wherever they can get it, George and Lennie are expected at The Boss’s ranch to “buck barley” (whatever that is); and they should be fine provided Lennie remembers to keep his mouth shut. Their best laid plan is to get enough cash to buy their own farm somewhere, so that they can live in security and safety; not afraid of hard work but hoping for the benefits that hard work would bring them.
However…. at the Boss’s ranch, they meet the wretched little Curley, one of those pint-sized bullies, and her bored and presumably sexually frustrated wife (who goes by the name of… Curley’s wife). She likes to hang around the guys for company, but the only consequence of that is that Curley gets even more annoyed and bullying, as he suspects everyone’s having an affair with her. He decides to take it out on Lennie because it appears that he won’t fight back…. Until he does…
You knew all that anyway, gentle reader, and there’s no doubt that it is a good story and maybe even something of a tear-jerker. Even so, I found the first act to be extremely slow and exposition-intensive. It certainly improves with the fight scene, and with the second act things get much more interesting. On the face of it, David Woodhead’s set works well, with the simple evocation of the brushwoods by the river bank, and the various rooms and dorms of the Barn and Bunkhouse at the ranch. It’s a coincidence, I am sure, but the opening scene features a river at the far front of the stage, exactly the same as in last year’s Grapes of Wrath. One wonders if Steinbeck had a thing about rivers.
In that production, there was real water in a tank which gave a tremendous sense of reality. Here, though, the river is imaginary, represented only by the sounds of gushing water when Lennie and George sloosh their heads underneath or cup their hands to splash themselves with. I’m normally one to prefer design that works on the imagination more than being obviously “real” – but in this case, I found the artifice of the design rather annoying. You could see there was no water; you could see, in the elaborate fight scene, that none of the punches was landing. The reality came from the sound effects; if you see the show, you’ll know precisely what I mean. It’s not often a simple sound effect can make you squirm in your seat. There were also a few weird incidents offstage that caused the otherwise quite atmospheric lighting to flicker every time someone walked somewhere they shouldn’t. There was even one occasion when someone came on stage, behind the semi-transparent backdrop, hovered for a bit, then wandered off. If this was meant to suggest the world going on around them, it didn’t work. It just looked like someone got their cue wrong.
But enough carping. The production is lucky enough to have some excellent performances, none greater than Matthew Wynn as Lennie, a gentle giant if ever there was one. It must be a really tough role to get right; I can imagine it being so easy to pantomime-up the character’s simple nature, or to brutalise down his incredible strength. Mr Wynn pitches it just perfectly and makes him a very believable character; effortlessly portraying Lennie’s emotions that he wears on his sleeve and unnerving us when his demons start to show through. It’s a really superb performance. Richard Keightley is also extremely good as George, not hiding his irritation at how Lennie slows him down and stops him (at least, as he sees it) from getting on well in life. But he is a true friend, and always offers kindness to Lennie, right to the bitter end.
Andrew Boyer is excellent as the old retainer Candy, clutching at the straw of potential partnership with George and Lennie, knowing he is powerless to prevent his old dog from being put out of its misery, clinging to the wreckage of memories that are worth so much more than today’s reality. Kamran Darabi Ford does a good job of conveying the aggressive character of Curley, punchy little prick that he is, and Rosemary Boyle is extremely good at balancing that slightly coquettish, slightly come-on look with her protestations that’s she’s a good girl deep down. The other characters are all very well portrayed; I especially enjoyed Kevin Mathurin’s Crooks, annoyed at the others invading his space when he’s not allowed to invade theirs, Darren Bancroft’s feisty Carlson and Harry Egan’s excitable Whit.
Right up until the final moment we weren’t sure how the story would resolve itself; that’s a testament to the mastery of John Steinbeck. But I confess I wasn’t sufficiently moved to need to wipe away a tear. For some reason, the production appealed much more to the head than the heart, and I found that thinking about George’s reasons for his actions and why he did it, much more absorbing than any emotional reaction. Having read the synopsis and leafed through my copy of the book, this seems to me to be very true to Steinbeck’s original work, including the occasional use of the N word, which always makes an audience feel uncomfortable, so be prepared. After its week here in Northampton, it goes on to Mold, Glasgow, Salisbury, Brighton, Wimbledon, Tunbridge Wells, Manchester and Swansea.