On an open stage we see an ever darkening North Californian evening sky on the back drop – the distant clouds bulge with periodic muted lightening flashes. This heated and atmospheric production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men by Touring Consortium Theatre Company and Birmingham Repertory Theatre directed by Roxana Silbert is supremely good.
The play begins with a song and fiddler setting the scene squarely in the troubled 1930s of the American West. We are introduced to friends George (William Rodell) and Lennie (Kristian Phillips) who appear as two loyal lost souls on the run from their former employers. Lennie has accidently killed a woman through his brute strength and his inability to realise the reality of his actions makes him unstable and a threat whilst being very likable. The two men are looking to start again as labourers on a farm. Rodell and Phillips are exceptional in their lead roles.
Lennie’s sweet obsession with rabbits and the two men’s, probably unlikely, dreams of owning a farmstead themselves are regular themes and points of drama throughout the piece.
Additional drama is found in the dangerously flirty actions of the bored newly wed known only as Curley’s wife (Saorise-Monica Jackson). Jackson is very impressive in her first professional role. Curley (Ben Stott) purports to be a hard man and good with his fists but spends much of his time agitatedly chasing around the farm trying to track down his wayward wife.
The audience’s empathy goes to old man Candy (Dudley Sutton) played with great feeling by Sutton. His equally old dog is played by local dog actor Benji who is very touching as he naively trots off to meet his end at the point of a Luger.
Dave Fishley is terrific as the negro worker Crooks and his character even comes across just as strongly when he silently plays toss the horseshoe in the far distance behind the bunkhouse. His head is thrown back in victory at each toss and then the horseshoe is retrieved in agonies by the crippled worker.
The set (designer Liz Ashcoft) is an inspired mix of ever unfolding scenes; firstly we have the open plains with few patches of wind blown reedy grasses: then the Bunkhouse and Barn are suggested with multi-visualised walls and solid wooden rough hewn furniture. This scene change is beautifully choreographed and executed by the cast. In the second half a massive hay bailer dominates the stage until it is swept away to reveal the plains for the final chase. The sound design by Nick Powell adds to the overall atmosphere and effectively blurs the boundaries between music and mere sound effects. The play is directed with extra-ordinary vision by Roxana Silbert.
The acting from the whole ensemble is very strong throughout, the accents faultless and the production is very faithful to Steinbeck’s novel which the fine programme notes reveal was seen almost as a theatrical piece as Steinbeck wrote it. Highly recommended.
Of Mice and Men plays at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Sat 5th March then continues to tour the UK.