Writer: John Steinbeck
Director: Guy Unsworth
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
One of the most powerful pieces of story-telling in American literature, John Steinbeck’s 1937 classic Of Mice and Men has begun its week-long run at the Royal and Derngate. It was made famous by the iconic film of the 30s and then again in the 1992 movie starring John Malkovich. It is a much-loved story, still very relevant, and one that lends itself to the stage well.
We are in the era of the Great Depression in the U.S when times were very hard and people were desperate for work and sometimes food. The novella tells of two migrant field workers: George Milton and the ironically-named Lennie Small. The former is a smart, quick man whereas the latter is huge and very strong but with a severe learning disability. The two share the dream of one day settling down on own their own land. George wants to be his own boss but gentle Lennie simply wants to tend and stroke the rabbits. They are escaping from the town of Weed where there was some question as to how far Lennie had gone with his desire to stroke as regards a young woman. They set off empty-handed, with only the clothes they were wearing when they fled, but their adventures do not quite turn out as they hoped and planned, even after they have found work in Soledad, California.
The relationship between George and Lennie is what is key to this piece. Although it seems to take a long time for said relationship to develop, when it does we can really feel the tight bond between the two men. Matthew Wynn brings us Lennie, a role which can be tricky to pull off, but Wynn certainly manages it without over-stating the character’s child-like mind. The audience is drawn to him and can empathise readily. He uses facial expressions and hand gestures cleverly. Richard Keightley, in the role of George, shows us the apparently curmudgeonly and bitter man who, underneath cares enormously for Lennie. Initially, Keightley does have a few problems with the accent here and there but, as he gets into the rôle this becomes less of an issue. His George is totally convincing by the end of Act 1.
Andrew Boyer’s portrayal of Candy, the old man who feels threatened and useless due to his stump for a left hand, is outstanding and utterly believable. There are some very poignant moments between him, Lennie and George. Similarly, the interaction between Curley’s wife, performed by Rosemary Boyle in a nicely understated manner, and Lennie at the end of Act 2 is as heart-wrenching as it is tragic.
Cameron Robertson’s Slim is a well-rounded performance as the ranch hand who clearly knows right from wrong. Harry Egan provides excellent comic relief in the person of Whit.
David Woodhead’s set design is a straight-forward timber frame which is simple but effectively used. The sound effects for the various shootings and other violent acts are extremely powerful, making several audience members leap in their seats. Bretta Gerecke’s lighting, especially at the start of the play, creates the perfect atmosphere.
This is a timeless piece of theatre which still has much to teach us about the human condition and about the bonds people develop. A very worthwhile evening’s entertainment.
Runs until 10 February and on tour | Image: Scott Rylander