Writer: John Steinbeck
Director: Guy Unsworth
Reviewer: Victoria Bawtree
Canterbury is currently hosting a brand-new touring production of John Steinbeck’s classic American story, produced by Selladoor Productions, in association with The Marlowe Theatre. Many will have been touched by the story and many will appreciate the beauty of Steinbeck’s narrative style, but far fewer will have had the opportunity to experience this American classic on stage.
Set in early 1930s California during the Depression, Steinbeck’s story follows the unlikely friendship of George and Lennie, migrant workers looking for employment. In obvious ways, they are polar opposites: George is slight in build; intelligent and ambitious, while Lennie is large and strong, but with an emotional age of a child. Both, however, share a dream of eventually earning enough money to buy land and live a quiet and fulfilled life. Their journey takes them to a ranch where they begin work as farmhands. The other workers are welcoming, but conflict arises between the newcomers and Curley, the boss’s son, who jealously guards his new wife while at the same time paying her little attention of his own.
At the heart of this story are the relationships between its characters: Steinbeck’s dialogue explores the intricacies of human relationships with touching insight. It is Lennie’s ability to focus on his dreams and live in his imagination that begins to break down barriers and allows the audience to learn the detail of the loneliness of those outcast from society. Lennie’s naivety combined with the truth that it reveals in others is constantly poignant.
The set focuses on the inside of an enormous timber barn, which is lit beautifully to reflect the shifting hours in the story. Smaller spaces are skillfully designed within this frame and all transformations are mastered with a welcome change of pace using both movement and music.
The overall relaxed pace allows time and space for the growth of each multi-layered character. Richard Keightley highlights George’s development as the play progresses and ultimately earns the audience’s sympathy through both his fierce protection of and gentle loyalty to his misfit friend. Matthew Wynn as Lennie is gentle and convincingly slow to react. It is a shame that neither’s American accent is entirely convincing, but the friendship is believable, which is crucial. Andrew Boyer as Candy, an old farmhand who has lost his right hand in an accident, adds depth and intensity to the narrative; Cameron Robertson as Slim, a lead worker on the range, portrays the unlikely emotional intelligence of his character with a natural openness and Kevin Mathurin is commanding as the black outcast, Crooks, a character who epitomises Steinbeck’s realisation of loneliness.
This is a thought-provoking and moving production, perfect for those who know the story of old and those who are exploring it for the first time.
Runs until 3 February 2018 and continues to tour | Image: Scott Rylander