I bought Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (intimidatingly big fat book) and Of Mice and Men (welcomingly slim volume) when I was 16 with the intention of improving my mind, and let’s face it, it needed a helluva lot of improvement. At the time I found novels really hard going, so these were always going to be a challenge. They went with me everywhere; I took them to university; I took them to my second university (yeah, I know, you wouldn’t credit it); I took them to my first flat; my first house; my second house; my third house; and when it came to moving yet again, this time we had to downsize and a lot of my books got taken to charity shops. The Grapes of Wrath was one such sacrifice. And I confess, gentle reader, in all that time I never read it. I’ve still never read Of Mice and Men either, but that’s easier to accommodate.
Still, I’ve read the synopsis on Wikipedia, so that’s a start; and I can confirm that Frank Galati’s stage version, that ran for 188 performances on Broadway in 1990, is very faithful to the original book. It’s a massive tale, overflowing with pathos, with powerful themes of tolerance, injustice, and loyalty; it’s an environment where banks evict you from your property through no fault of your own, you’re lucky if you can get a zero hours contract and where fat cats grow fatter by exploiting the weakest of society. Thus it’s still incredibly relevant for our own time. There’s a large cast of distinctive characters whose dilemmas and reactions intrigue and surprise you. Put all that into a stage adaptation and it’s got to be great, hasn’t it? Hasn’t it?
I have to be honest to one of my theatrical mantras which is that I’d prefer to see a brave failure than a lazy success. I love to be challenged in the theatre by off the wall ideas that may not work but you can see how the creative team were maybe trying to subvert material, or question responses. Even if at the end of the day it doesn’t work, it’s much more rewarding than a bland drawing room comedy just phoned in by a complacent cast.
This, however, is something completely different. It’s theatre, Jim, but not as we know it. I ask myself if director Abbey Wright is trying to obstruct us from simple story-telling, because so much of what happens on stage really gets in the way of the plot. The play opens to a man playing a saw like a cello. To be fair, he does it expertly. The note he plays gets taken up by other members of the band, and it’s just minutely off-key. That sets the tone for the rest of the performance. Discordant, random music that doesn’t in any way please the ear bursts in when you don’t expect or want it. The car salesmen are ludicrously represented by three of the cast on adjustable aluminium stilts. The boy, whose father is dying in the final scene, is wearing a Superman outfit. Another of the nameless travellers the Joad family encounter on the way to California is wearing a T-shirt with the legend “Are we there yet?” (Is that meant to be funny?) and yet another, who’s in charge of one of the camps, is wearing a high vis jacket, very 1930s. The hordes of people all hoping for a better life are standing silently still within a screen looking for all the world like The Girl with all the Gifts’ Hungries, only better dressed. In a scene I found excruciatingly embarrassing, the cast members all perform a ridiculous dance routine, marked by stylised jerky movements and to what purpose? Simply because they could?
Important scenes take place on a terribly lit stage so you can barely work out who is talking to whom. Perhaps worst of all, the final, moving, image of the dying man being nursed by Rose of Sharon is totally ruined by the clunking of the movement of the set back into position. Surely there could have been some way to avoid this? It was like a phone going off at the vital moment in a funeral. The production is absolutely crammed with these bizarre, jarring intrusions, so I can only assume this is a deliberate form of unsettling the audience, as if the simple story of the Joad family wasn’t unsettling enough. In fact, I feel the production does not give the Joads and their acquaintances the respect they deserve.
An additional side-effect of the terrible situation they find themselves in, is that the characters are, for the most part, beaten by life, destroyed by circumstances; and, unsurprisingly this knocks the wind out of their sails. The cast convey this devastation very accurately by constantly talking in monotone; and, as a result, it is literally monotonous to watch. There’s very little flexibility to their vocal range – they’re down at mouth and down at voice too. There’s only one scene where there’s any real sense of life, and that’s where Tom, Al and Noah go swimming in the river – admittedly a very nice piece of stagecraft, and you may get splashed in the first three rows.
There was also a strange disconnect between some of the actors – as though they had rehearsed their speeches alone, independently, and this was the first time they had met and put their lines together. With a few notable exceptions, it very much felt like “A: It is a tough life we have here.” (Pause – over to you, B ) “B: Yes, you are right, extremely tough, don’t you agree, C?” (Pause – expectant look at C) “C: You took the words out of my mouth, B.” And so on. Exceptions to this were a beautiful, thoughtful, flowing performance by Julia Swift as Ma, straining to keep the family together at all cost, and a delightfully wry performance by Brendan Charleson as Casy, the preacher who took the benefits of his position but has now moved on. Daniel Booroff, also, gave some refreshing quirkiness to his characters of Noah and Jim Rawley at Weedpatch.
A compelling tale of human determination done a grave disservice by a clumsy, clunky production. Mrs Chrisparkle wondered if it hadn’t had time to “bed in” yet, but it’s already been to Southampton, Nottingham and West Yorkshire Playhouse, let alone being in its final week in Northampton, so it can’t be that. A brave failure? I’m not sure. I just didn’t get the vision behind the production at all; and of all the 50-odd Made in Northampton plays I’ve seen over the last eight years this is the most “amateur” in the pejorative sense of the word. Gives me no pleasure at all to say that!