John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men is just as moving now as it was in the Great Depression; and the production from Birmingham Rep and Touring Consortium fully does it justice.
Credit crunch? Austerity? Pah! All pales into insignificance against the Great Depression of the 1930s, bringing poverty to the United State unimaginable today. But whilst the hardships may be long forgotten, John Steinbeck’s masterpiece from this era lives on. Of Mice and Men is set in the world of the migrants, the American men who travelled west looking for any work they could find. A big theme throughout the play is loneliness of the migrants who travel alone. But two main characters in the story, George and Lennie, travel together and have each other.
The friendship of George and Lennie is fundamental to the story. Lennie is strong but simple-minded, and frequently gets them both into trouble; George would do better without him, but he accepts this burden – perhaps it is because he knows Lennie would never betray him. One might think of Lennie as gentle giant who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but sadly, that isn’t quite true. Lennie likes to hold tightly on to things he likes, which is how many unfortunate mice met an untimely end. We hear of a misunderstanding regarding a lady’s dress Lennie took a liking to that almost spelt the end of both of them. Alas, in spite for George’s efforts to protect Lennie from himself, this trait of his will bring their friendship to the ultimate tragedy.
Set over the days leading up to the heartbreaking end, the two men find work an a plantation. All their fellow workers have some sort of loneliness; most of them find solace in the local cathouse, elderly Candy’s only friend is his decrepit dog; and the casual racism of then men means the only black worker sleeps separately and can’t join their games. When a chance discussion give George a golden opportunity to buy a house he always wanted for himself and Lennie, everyone want to come with him. The only threat, it seems, comes from the boss’s arrogant son Curly who has blatant short man syndrome (who is very lucky no-one thought of the obvious nickname for a short man named Curly), permanently furious with his wife indiscriminately coming on to the farm hands under flimsy pretences. Here we go, I thought, obvious douchebag of a husband, obvious skank of a wife, I can see where this is going – but no. John Steinbeck completely wrong-footed me there. Curly’s wife turns out to be the most misunderstood of all the characters, the most lonely, an unhappy result of a marriage to escape a lonely smalltown life. And it is this prejudice from the rest of the ranch that leads to the tragedy no-one saw coming.
And I could go on. There are so many layers to this story, and none of this seems to have been lost from Steinbeck’s adaptation from the original novella to the stage. With such a masterpiece of a script, all it takes for a good production is a company to understand the many strengths of the play and bring them out. And this joint production between Birmingham Rep and Touring Consortium does it superbly. Everyone in the cast from the leads to the bit parts suited their roles perfectly. There was quite a big creative team under director Roxana Silbert; it’s hard to know who should get the credit for what, but the overall effect was a virtually flawless production at every level.
But if there’s one thing about the production I’d really like to pick out, it’s the set of Liz Ascroft supported by the lighting of Simon Bond. Set design in classic plays often needs treating with suspicion because it’s easy for set designers to some up with “concepts” that make themselves look good but do a big disservice to the play. Not here. This is a set which was distinctive, beautiful and still suited the play perfectly, especially the scene inside the ranch. Quite a thing for transparent back walls at the moment, but this enabled Birmingham Rep to make this play their own whilst remaining fully faithful to the autho’s intentions.
Just a couple of tiny niggles. There was just just one aspect of the set I didn’t like, and that was the doorway at the back of a set. I know there was some idea for George and Lennie to enter the stage through a door in the sky, but the heavy use of lighting meant the door frame was permanently visible over a skyline, which looked a bit weird. And my other niggle is that I felt the live music didn’t quite work. I thought the music written for this production was great, but with most of it being recorded, I didn’t see the point of doing some live music as well, especially when you could see a wire trailing from the violin and you couldn’t hear what it was being sung. I’d have just stuck to the recorded music; the live music was more trouble than it was worth.
But seriously, those are the most niggliest of tiny niggles, and it doesn’t change the fact that this is an outstanding production of an outstanding play. So powerful is the writing I wonder why we don’t hear about it more often, but I couldn’t have picked a better company to introduce me to this. Congratulations to everyone for a superb job, and looking forward to the next fixture at Darlington Civic Theatre.