Of Mice and Men – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
Of Mice and Men – Review
West Yorkshire Playhouse, March 2014
by Mathew Gillings
Some might think that Of Mice and Men has become a little staid. Yet this spectacular performance shows us all that we can still learn much from the well-worn text.
Over the next few weeks, British teenagers will be memorising a myriad of quotes from the story. They will be searching for themes and symbols and attempting to figure out the true meaning of the word ‘moral’. The novel is a staple of the GCSE English Literature syllabus – and that was quite apparent at this particular performance. A significant part of the audience is made up of school groups. I’m pleased to report they are just as captivated as your writer.
Mark Rosenblatt has adapted John Steinbeck’s 1937 classic for the stage. It’s an absolute belter. Steinbeck’s story is set against the Great Depression in 1930’s California. Lennie and George, best friends, find themselves travelling from job-to-job on different farms. They try their hardest to build up a stake and buy their own farm. George is an intelligent chap – not the most educated, but instead blessed with common sense, patience, and respect. Lennie, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. Steinbeck portrays him as child-like. Often he is too clumsy for his own good. Rosenblatt takes note of this and Lennie, played by Dyfrig Morris, plays up to these descriptions on stage. He is frequently seen ‘dabbling his paw’ in the water, gasping for breath. He sits in the most awkward of positions for a fully-grown adult. It’s an impressive performance.
“Yearning for success, happiness, freedom”
The second act allows us to hear a lot more of what Lennie has to say. Whilst he’s shunned into near-silence for the first hour, he eventually finds a voice and we learn a lot more about his priorities. Henry Pettigrew plays George. He has just the right amount of cockiness for a newly-recruited farm hand. His firmness with Curly is impressive, yet it is the final scene which really shows how involved Pettigrew is with the story. As he limps off with Slim (Andy Clark), there are clear signs of genuine emotion. In fact, it is this relationship that I am most looking forward to seeing adapted on stage. At first, I am rather worried.
In the novel, Slim is portrayed as being rather heroic. Yet the first time Slim is centre-stage, we see him combing his hair. He’s more like Gaston than Hercules. Throughout the rest of the play, he indeed secures his position as the voice of reason. He often takes a rather different approach to the more rowdy gentleman of the bunkhouse. Arguably the most important character of the story is Curley’s Wife, played by Heather Christian. This character emphasises the position of women in the 1930s. Her ‘chat’ with Lennie in the penultimate scene is beautiful. The two of them engage in their own monologues, yet both are yearning for the same success, happiness, and freedom. Seeing her interact with Crooks and Candy is brilliant too. From one minority to another, they are collectively scared and insecure. Those individuals have more in common than they might originally think.
“Profound emotional impact”
Not only does Heather Christian play Curley’s Wife, but she is also the show’s composer and musical director. Personally, I would like to see that area developed a little more. She conducts an acapella group, made up of the other actors. It is often unclear whether we can hear their voices or an instrument. They use their voices for sound effects, transition melodies, and tension. I’ve never seen anything like it and it works incredibly well.
The set design is one of the best I’ve seen. It reminds me a little of Whistle Down the Wind. The Quarry Theatre was perfect for a set like this, with large looming wooden walls casting some brilliant shadows down onto the floor. Hay is strewn across the floor, and a patch of still water can be found on one side of the stage near the brush. It is just like I’d imagined it whilst reading the book. There could only be one ending to a story like this, and I think everyone in the audience knew it.
I did not expect to enjoy the play quite so much as I do. I certainly did not think the final scenes would have such a profound emotional impact on me. Afterwards, I walk to the car feeling rather speechless. It makes you appreciate the more simple pleasures in life. It makes you realise the immense power of nature. After all, who doesn’t want to tend a few rabbits once in a while?
Photos: Jonathan Keenan