Review: Of Mice and Men. Cambridge Arts Theatre

Of Mice & Men

Cambridge Arts Theatre

19th April 2023

Taken from John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella, this Depression-Era tale sees farm-hands George Milton (played here by Tom McCall) and Lennie Small (William Young) on the road and looking for work, having been forced to leave their last job after Lennie got into trouble.  Between George’s smarts and Lennie’s brawn, they successfully find employment on a farm in Soledad, and begin to get to know the other workers.  The work is tough and things seems bleak, but George has a plan for a better life, and tells the child-like Lennie nightly of how good the future will be.  His optimism begins to rub off on some of the other workers, but a constant fear hangs over their heads, as George is soon reminded of the things that Lennie is capable of, and the plays questions whether they’re predestined to fail from their own shortcomings despite their “best laid plans”.

A staple of classic literature still taught in schools today, “Of Mice & Men” has lost none of its power in its 85-year-legacy.  The tight connection between its characters and the questions it asks about humanity, optimism and destiny still hit home to this day, and Director Iqbal Khan’s new production delivers this brilliantly.  The play has recently enjoyed a successful run at the Birmingham Rep (where Khan is the Associate Director), and is now enjoying a short UK tour, which this week performs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

Khan’s sense of vision for this production is hugely impressive.  The play feels modern in its delivery and how it presents itself, but Khan also keeps things faithful to the source material and Steinbeck’s language, although some of the more controversial language has been amended, and a few additions have been made to flesh out certain characters (Curley’s Wife, in particular, relieving some of the misogynistic tones of the novella).  Khan creates an atmospheric tension throughout the play, and a great sense of foreboding as the inevitable futures of the play’s flawed characters loom ever closer.  The pace does falter at times, particularly during the lengthy first act, but it keeps an almost magnetic grip on its audience, created not only by some excellent performances but also Ciaran Bagnall’s stark-but-stunning set and lighting design.  The sparse staging of dark wood and cutting shards of light brilliantly convey an oppressive landscape somehow filled with emptiness, much like the lives of its characters, and a daring construction of wooden slats hang overhead which act as a constant reminder of a looming inescapable future.

The assembled cast do a uniformly impressive job and give layered, nuanced performances.  Tom McCall’s George is the glue that holds the show together, and McCall gives an excellent turn as a man trying to make good in the face of unavoidable failure.  William Young has battled complex learning difficulties, and he embodies Lennie with such authenticity that the already-powerful material is elevated to another level and it hits harder (particularly the tragic ending, which is delivered beautifully by both men). He really does feel like he’s lived Lennie’s experiences and faced these challenges, and the resulting impact of Young being able to turn his disability into art is hugely affecting.  Lee Ravitz gives fantastic characterisation to his portrayal of old-timer Candy, although his Deep South drawl can be hard to follow and some key plot points get lost within his dialogue, so it’s worth reading (or re-reading) the novella before seeing the production. 

‘Of Mice & Men’ could never be described as “feel-good entertainment, but this is a powerful and evocative play which deserves to be seen.  You may know what ending awaits you, but Khan ensures that you’ll feel its power all the same. The first act could do with a bit of trimming, and it’s not an easy watch at times, but it is an important one and comes highly recommended.

‘Of Mice & Men’ runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday 22nd April 2023 before visiting Malvern, Bath and Leeds.
Performance runtime 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.


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