Writer: John Steinbeck
Director: Jan Townend
Set Design: Dave Law
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is unusual in that his stage version is not really an adaptation. Where most dramatisations of novels involve the writing of fresh dialogue and decisions about what to cut, Steinbeck’s original novella is short enough and so full of dialogue that it transfers almost as it is – we lose some beautiful descriptive writing, but that’s about all.
This means, especially in such a truthful production as JKL’s, that the original comes through unimpaired. It also means, however, that a fiction which, compared with such masterpieces as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, is almost anecdotal is transformed into a substantial three-acter. Two-interval evenings having gone out of fashion, JKL is forced into a 90 minute first half, rather too evenly paced on the first night. The second part, half as long and twice as dramatic, shows Jan Townend’s direction at its imaginative best.
The story of Of Mice and Men is familiar to most of us, whether from films or GCSE English, Steinbeck’s revelation of the sufferings of Depression-era America via a small-scale human story rather than the political epic of The Grapes of Wrath. George and Lenny are itinerant farm-workers, George protecting Lennie – a simple-minded giant – from the consequences of his actions and other people’s cruelty. They arrive at a ranch in California and meet up with a whole series of unfortunates, whether because of disability, race or inadequacy in a cut-throat world. Two half-predictable actions of Lennie pitch the social drama into tragedy.
JKL Productions are Doncaster-based and regular visitors to Cast. Jan Townend certainly knows how to use the expanse of the theatre’s Second Space, a large open area surrounded by the audience, intimately placed on three sides. At the back, a rickety wooden structure represents bunkhouse and barn wall and door and simple changes of props and furniture shift location. The two outbreaks of violence are well handled, using stage space effectively and startling those in the front row with the staggering or swirling bodies.
Chris Holt’s George is excellent, for much of the time self-contained, bursting out periodically to great effect, watchful (as George must be) and consistently himself. Lee Plant acts Lennie very skilfully, with much thoughtful detail, and gains and keeps the audience’s sympathy. However, he comes up against an interpretation problem: just how damaged should Lennie be? Maybe this Lennie is a touch overdone.
A large mostly male ensemble works together extremely well, with key characteristics established early, even if some of the performances are rather generic and some accents tend to wander. Candy, the old swamper, is key to the stage version and Kevin Spence’s performance, perhaps a little uneven, manages to involve the audience in both the comedy and pathos of the character. Among the smaller parts Rachel Ryan, revealing the good girl beneath the blowsy tart in Curley’s Wife, and Levi Payne as Crooks, the only black on the ranch, suffering a conflict between aggression and need, are especially three-dimensional.
Runs until 3 February 2018 | Image: Contributed