Of Mice and Men – Nottingham Theatre Royal

Writer: John Steinbeck

Director: Roxana Silbert

Reviewer: Dave Smith

John Steinbeck’s classic tale of two very different men crossing America together in search of what on the surface seems like a shared dream has been seen on our stages fairly regularly over the last few years. That could not only be because it’s a very good story with strong dramatic moments, but also because its themes of loneliness, economic migration and the problems associated with being a ‘carer’ are as relevant now as when the book was first written nearly 80 years ago.

Of Mice and Men is set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and these migrants, farm workers George and Lennie, are heading for California in the hope of earning enough to buy their own bit of land and build themselves a home. Both their heads are filled with dreams, yet although they travel together physically, mentally they are streets apart. Lennie is essentially a child trapped in a man’s body – a very big and strong body – and his inability to handle himself socially constantly holds back and lands in trouble the smarter, charming George. They find themselves heavy labouring work on a barley farm, but it doesn’t take long for Lennie to ruin their latest chance as they find themselves caught between their boss’ very angry son Curley and his flighty and flirty new bride.

Kristian Phillips is excellent as the innocent and well-meaning, but forgetful, clumsy and rabbit-obsessed Lennie, and William Rodell is a brooding and intense presence as George, caught between his loyalty to Lennie and its incompatibility with his own hopes for the future. Both handle their accents well throughout, although the same cannot be said for the whole cast, whose characters are much less well-rounded: Ben Stott’s Curley clearly has anger management issues; Dudley Sutton as Candy is winningly frail and genial, but not wholly convincing as a man who has spent the majority of his life on a tough working farm; and Jonah Russell, as the “god-like” jerk line hustler Slim, unfortunately slips into parody, so stiffly does he move and so meaningfully does he stare into the distance.

The real highlights of this Touring Consortium show, though, are Liz Ascroft’s set and Simon Bond’s lighting, which combine superbly to capture the open spaces and colours of rural America. The indoor scenes, in the workers’ bunkhouse and the barn, also feel genuine. Roxana Silbert’s direction, on the other hand, is adequate without managing to quite set the right pace or make the best out of the material; two of the play’s key moments – the loss of Candy’s dog and George’s desperate solution to his ongoing dilemma – don’t carry anything like the dramatic punch they should.

All in all, then, an enjoyable evening and a decent enough production of what is increasingly becoming a stage favourite, but not strong enough – apart from the set and lighting design – to really stand out among some pretty serious competition over recent years.

Runs until 6 March 2016 and on tour | Image:Ellie Kurttz

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