DramaReviewSouth Coast

Off Mice And Men – Theatre Royal, Brighton

Writer: John Steinbeck
Director: Roxana Silbert
Reviewer: Niall Harman

Of Mice and Men has been a set text at British schools for decades, which explains the masses of teenagers flocking to see this production in droves. Yet while John Steinbeck’s novel has proved to be a timeless classic and the topic of many a frustrated sixteen year old’s coursework essay, on stage it proves to be somewhat underpowered and underwhelming.

Set in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Of Mice and Men covers a mere few days in the lives of George and Lennie, two itinerant workers about to start work on a new ranch, after having to flee their previous employer. In a time of great economic hardship and in a line of work where many men are gripped by loneliness, George and Lennie’s decision to travel together proves exceptional, and the reasons why the pair have to travel together quickly become obvious.

Put simply, George is the brains and Lennie is the brawn. Lennie Small is a large man with a big heart, yet his diminished mental capacity and penchant for stroking soft things often lands the pair in trouble. George Milton, short and smart, has to act and often speak for both of them. The pair dream of one day escaping the dustbowl and their bleak lifestyle. Their version of the American Dream sees them wanting to live off their own land, with Lennie’s primary concern being tending rabbits. Things become complicated as the pair become caught between their new boss’s son, crippled by a Napoleon complex that Lennie’s size inevitably acerbates, and his flighty new bride.

The acting is serviceable, but far from spectacular. As Lennie, Kristian Phillips tackles a challenging role with aplomb and proves to be sweet and endearing, contrasting effectively with his large stature. William Rodell’s highlight as George comes when he starts to see the dream of owning his own ranch become slightly more achievable, and his enthusiasm is infectious. As the only African-American and only woman on the ranch respectively, Dave Fishley and Saorise-Monica Jackson are somewhat underpowered. Fishley should have been more affecting, instead of relying on extreme facial expressions at times, and Jackson lacked the passion, anger and overwhelming sadness that the role of Curley’s Wife requires.

The interior scenes feature impressive design from Liz Ashcroft, yet the same cannot be said for the first and final scenes. The brush near the ranch is represented by a large crinkled sheet showing a sunset and a few bits of straw in plastic pots barely hidden by a hessian sheet, which cheapens these core scenes.

Adapted by the novel’s author John Steinbeck, the text itself proves problematic, coupled with direction from Roxana Silbert that sees the first half drag in places, although it is perked up by an appearance by a very cute dog. The story remains a solid and memorable one, but it is ultimately too simple to be sustained for two and a half hours. It remains a timeless, enjoyable and occasionally moving piece, but without the descriptive flair of Steinbeck’s source novel, despite the fact that Steinbeck himself adapted it for the stage, it feels as if something is missing.

Runsuntil 23 April 2016 | Image: Ellie Kurttz

 

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