Writer: John Steinbeck
Director: Roxana Silbert
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
When you overhear another audience member likening the main character of this classic American tale to Benny fromCrossroads, it’s hard not to think that something could be slightly awry on the stage. But there is certainly something which doesn’t connect, or isn’t consistent, or just doesn’t hit the mark about this production from director Roxana Silbert.
It may be that the Brechtian production style, discussed by designer Liz Ascroft in the programme notes, is barely evidenced on the stage. Or it could be that the opening song of This Land is Your Land feels like a patently false statement and sung half-heartedly at that. Or it may just be a dawning sense that John Steinbeck’s tale of drifting farmhands during the 1930s dust bowl Depression feels strangely slight and fairytalesque, with its tragic action tending towards melodrama at times.
Either way, the production is certainly a mixed-up affair. Simon Bond’s changing lightscapes give the production a visually arresting aspect on occasion, though Ascroft’s design flits between symbolism and reality. And while some of the sound effects – and the opening song – are created by the cast, others are drawn from a recorded score by Nick Powell.
A similar theme is evident in the performances. Of the two leads, Kristian Phillips as big Lennie Small brings vulnerability in spades, while William Rodell struggles to bring more than one note of niceness to mild-mannered George. Neil McKinven brings a rambunctious life to farmhand Carlson, and Dave Fishley steals the few scenes he gets as Crooks, perhaps because his character has a degree of depth that the other flat archetypes lack.
Likewise, Saoirse-Monica Jackson as Curly’s wife may not be given her own name, but she brings a refreshing degree of wounded disillusionment and frustrated dreams to the story’s sole female role. There a sense of twenty-first century feminist vibrancy winning out over the play’s three-quarters-of-a-century-
It is hard to say if the production fails to build adequately on the story’s themes of flawed ambitions and absences of compassion, or if the story itself is somehow too unsophisticated to satisfy a modern audience, or whether it’s simply not a presentation with a strong enough resonance for the here-and-now, but the play’s climactic moment feels painfully flat. That few in the audience won’t have known it was coming (thanks either to the story’s longevity or to the wealth of weighty thematic references throughout) doesn’t help.
Worth catching for fans of the story; worth skipping for those who crave something more contemporary and satisfying – a repeat ofCrossroads, perhaps.
Runs until 30 April 2016 | Image: Contributed