Of Mice and Men – Oxford Playhouse

Writer: John Steinbeck

Director: Roxana Silbert

Reviewer: Fergus Morgan

Everyone is familiar with Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck’s classic story of two migrant ranch workers striving to escape their menial life in mid-depression California. It’s a tragedy that has etched itself, as both a novella and a play, into the very fabric of the American psyche and into the exam syllabuses of generations of schoolkids around the world.

Despite its now wearisome examination of the American Dream, though, it can still prove a compellingly gritty study of companionship and escapism as evidenced by 2014’s stirring Broadway production with James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, which British audiences enjoyed thanks to NT Live’s nationwide broadcast. Roxana Silbert’s touring version, produced jointly by Touring Consortium and Birmingham Rep, is brisk and economic. It fails to tug at the heartstrings consistently, but it’s an aesthetic delight with an authentic dustiness to it, and it provides vital exam fodder for the hordes of anxiously revising teenagers in attendance.

William Rodell is the wily George and Kristian Phillips his lumbering, mentally challenged companion, Lennie. Both provide competent, confident performances – although Phillips is a tad too quick-witted and lucid as the childish Lennie – without ever really emphasising the significance of their intimate, co-dependent relationship. George’s evocation of their longed-for future, for example, in which Lennie can tend the rabbits and they can both live sweet lives off the fat of the land, is repeated with essayed tenderness but without an essential vitality.

Dudley Sutton is similarly capable as the one-handed Candy, the dilapidated old-timer George and Lennie co-opt into their plot, as is Jonah Russell as the strong but sensitive alpha male of the bunk house, Slim. Ben Stott is an appropriately irritating Curley, pugnacious and punkish throughout, and Saoirse-Monica Jackson is believably miserable as his crushingly lonely wife, even if she does lack the rouge-lipped sexiness that provokes such hostility and jealousy in all the male characters. The most memorable performance comes from Dave Fishley, however, who captures a powerful cocktail of bitterness, envy, resentment and hunger as the crippled black stable buck, Crooks.

All takes place on Liz Ashcroft’s sparse, wooden set. Two clumps of brush sprout at either end of a watery crack with the beds and card-tables of the bunkhouse rhythmically arranged around them by the cast for the indoors scenes. And behind all is a gorgeously rich skyscape, which glides from milky blue to deep, fiery red throughout. Nick Powell’s roguish, wistful music, performed live by the cast, provides charming accompaniment throughout.

But despite Ashcroft’s set, Powell’s music, and a set of strong, if not outstanding performances, Silbert’s production never really feels like it steps out of second gear. For the tragedy of Of Mice And Men to truly impact on stage, it needs to present the sheer desperation of the migrant ranch worker lifestyle and to conjure up tangible promises of escape. The hopes, dreams and wishes of George, Lennie et al need to hang perceptively and tantalisingly out of reach, while their current situation needs to throb with dissatisfaction. Silbert’s production doesn’t achieve this, partly because it proceeds at an uncomfortable briskness throughout, with barely a moment in which to reflect, and partly because it is so damn difficult to imbue a story the audience already knows with fresh muscle.

Runs until 14 May 2016 | Image:Ellie Kurttz

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