The Grapes of Wrath – Nottingham Playhouse

Writer: Frank Galati adapted from the novel by John Steinbeck

Director: Abbey Wright

Reviewer:  Claire Going

John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel is widely acknowledged as an epic tale of struggle and unity, and Frank Galati’s stage adaptation has been lauded, winning a Tony Award back in 1990.  What a shame, then, that Abbey Wright’s new production of The Grapes of Wrath never quite touches the still-beating heart of the text. A collaborative effort by four regional theatres, and featuring a large community chorus, this production shows signs of promise but never quite realises them, coming across as uncertain and even at times confused.

Forced to leave their home and livelihood in 1930s Oklahoma thanks to the arrival of mechanised labour, tenant farmers the Joads migrate to California for a better life only to discover they have embarked on a journey that will test them to the limits of human endurance.

With randomly sprinkled hints to the contemporary to be found most noticeably in a few oddly placed modern costumes, Wright appears to be trying to make connections between the Joads’ world and our own. All this achieves, however, is to frustrate the gritty realism of Steinbeck’s vision and undermine the novel’s soul. One has to wonder, as well, what Wright intends when the action jumps from Tom Joad’s discovery that his family is being displaced to an awkwardly misplaced musical performance on stilts by three cast members sporting jackets with the words ‘Cars’, ‘R’ and ‘Us’.

Apart from the wonderfully evocative opening scene which sees a hand saw played with a bow (a device borrowed from an earlier production), and a community chorus led by Uncle John (Jim Kitson) that movingly embodies the migrants’ unity, Matt Regan’s music seems to have aimed high but hit low. Attempts at conjuring up a haunting discord come across as cluttered and misshapen, with the electric guitars and vocal microphones detracting from what is no doubt trying to be an evocative soundscape.

There are, however, hints of potential and glimmers of talent in this production. Julia Swift offers all the matriarchal pragmatism we expect from Ma Joad, and Brendan Charleson delivers an appealing performance as the alternative Christ figure, John Casy. Colour-blind, and at one moment gender-blind, Ruth O’Dowd has selected a cast that, in places, delivers believable performances, but the Joad family never quite gel in the way they should. Despite this, Pamela Merrick as Granma, the Mayor and Lisbeth Sandry, and Daniel Booroff as Noah bring a refreshing artistry which demonstrates maturity in characterisation within some of the smaller roles. Molly Logan, though, never quite allows her Rose of Sharon to develop in the way Steinbeck offers, and therefore the final scene appears forced and out of place.

The set, designed by Laura Hopkins, is both versatile and well-thought out. Two large steel crates embody the Joads’ ‘jalopy’, tents, railroad cars and more. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It is a shame the crates are not used better to portray the cramped and ramshackle travelling conditions of the Joads’ journey, and positioning the musicians on the top of the crates in the opening scene suggests more of a music concert than a play about social injustice.

The Grapes of Wrath, with its thematic focus on the lack of food for migrant workers, is supposed to offer us food for thought. Unfortunately, however, this production is too confused to allow the mind to be focused on Steinbeck’s vision or its possible contemporary parallels, and therefore sadly falls short of its aims.

Runs until 8 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

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