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FringeReview UK 2018

Of Mice and Men

Selladoor Worldwide and Matthew Townshend Productions with Marlowe Theatre Canterbury in Association with Stephen McGill and Big Dreamer Productions

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Adapted by director Guy Unsworth this adaptation boasts David Woodhead’s set suggests a vast slatted barn allowing slots of light through in Bretta Gerecke’s fine, varied lighting; it’s striated in diverse and strangely coloured strips of late August. The opening – archive Woody Guthrie – establishes both ethos and myth. Mark Aspinall’s music otherwise unobtrusive spindrifts from this. Till March 17th.


The story compels and will go on compelling. It’s only two years since Derngate brought a superb production of this syllabus-led 1937 novella dramatized very effectively for theatre. This Selladoor-produced version, significantly different in small telling details was made by director Guy Unsworth. Selladoor brought us a fine Crucible a year ago, so this production’s been comfortably anticipated.


It’s absorbing and disturbing; the pace too is notably measured, working with the rhythms of the original and the long boredoms of the lifestyle, alternating with sudden explosions. Unsworth holds nothing back: misogyny and racism, the N word and vicious bullying. And at the centre co-dependant characters: simple Lennie in a land where neuro-diversity would still meet with short shrift; and his smart minder, nimble diminutive George, loyal to a promise.


But would he be unmeridianed as Keats once put it of himself, if he really was free of Lennie? He’d earn half as much, and fritter it all; his own harsh verdict. Richard Keightley is wearily faceted as the exasperated George: by turns tough, tender, sarcastic, knowingly complicit with other smart men. Yet he indulges Lennie’s dream of rabbits eating alfafa on a shared farm so much he ends up believing it. So ultimately do others. It’s a dream that become graspable. Which makes Of Mice and Men the more harrowing. Dust bowls twisting a world out of reach.


David Woodhead’s set suggests a vast slatted barn allowing slots of light through in Bretta Gerecke’s fine, varied lighting; it’s striated in diverse and strangely coloured strips of late August. Dry ice obscures this richly angled prison but various stooks of wheat and grass, moveable beds and various projections to represent Crooks’ room (more on that later) lend a quickly variety all unified by the accoutred frowsty barn. One should add Candy’s dog at this stage. This time it’s not a real one but animated by Kevin Mathurin who later plays Crooks.


The opening – archive Woody Guthrie sings a socialist blues anthem (not ‘This Land is Your Land’) – establishing both ethos and myth, as if we’re being told in a ballad. Mark Aspinall’s music otherwise unobtrusive spindrifts from this. Migrant workers George and Lennie enter simply in front of bushes amidst scrubland.


Matthew Wynn’s lumbering hugeness is offset by an occasional string of perfectly worded articulations, even if they’re uncomprehending. Rather than take the typically ‘simple’ route now demolished by our recent understanding (at best) Lennie’s here often able to articulate words crisply and clearly. It’s just that as with Eric Morecombe, the senses aren’t all necessarily in the right order. He occasionally relishes a word as if trying it out. Its unsettling, contradicting what we think we know of Lennie. In this production George dismisses the official line that Lennie’s condition comes through being kicked in the head by a mule when tiny. If there’s a case for suggesting autism, it’ll take more than the exigencies of a 1930s plot to clarify it. We just don’t know.


If Lennie’s ‘simple’ the complex reasons for smart George lumbering himself with Lenny involve loyalty and fear. They grew up together, Lennie’s relatives are dead. A co-dependant familiarity, where Lennie’s habit of picking up dead mice or accidentally killing and stroking them contrasts with what they’ve anchored in a shared dream of owning a patch of land where rabbits eat alfalfa.


Lennie’s clumsy tenderness towards beautiful things gets heavily underscored in this production where ritual emphasis is laid on that dead mouse, and later a dead puppy. Lennie’s going to supersize his fatal clumsiness. Steinbeck created a tangle of motives with a simple outcome, this one famously devastating.


Unsworth’s compression of motifs ensures we hear a lot of Lennie’s accidentally crushing mice (hence the appositeness of the Burns quote, and its darker resonance on plans) puppies, and more besides. It’s clear too that George hedges every work opportunity with warning Lennie not to say anything. In this portrayal Keightley’s George balances compassion with irascibility and quick thinking, coupled with an unexpectedly smart muscularity: he can take care of himself, he’s not the obvious weedy antipode to gentle giant Lennie. Though as a boxer he’s no match for the vicious Curly; nor indeed is anyone else.


George despairs – Lennie’s attention-span makes any goldfish resemble Mr Memory. Lennie also doesn’t listen: in a climactic scene with the owner’s son’s wife (Rosemary Boyle) they both talk heedlessly along wholly different narratives, poignantly pitched, equally innocent, aspirational, both in effect children.


This is beautifully brought out in Wynn’s supremely oblivious sweetness as Lennie, and the softer impact of Boyle as Curly’s Wife. In this production she’s no provocative siren but an unhappy young woman who in an additional detail has packed to leave, making this scene all the more poignant.


Steinbeck himself was at pains to exonerate this character from her catalytic effect much harped on by Candy and others. Here her brief vicious dig at Crooks, and thus her sudden interruption of the four men – George, Lennie, Crooks, Candy – dreaming on a shared future, are omitted. In a desire to render the young woman innocent, her abrasive qualities have eroded. Boyle presents almost as pure a victim as Lennie. She’s hurt by her misogynistic, fearful treatment. Yet such innocence can be deadly, especially if doubled with these two.


This was a feature of the Derngate production too, and follows Steinbeck’s thinking. He naturally felt bad behaviour and innocence to co-exist. Modern directors anxious about misogyny, rather smooth out the one female character. Here though, Boyle’s achingly sweet, even believing a Hollywood producer did write to her.


For this is a play of different alienations. Some migrants are friendly, like the shrewd yet kind Slim (Cameron Robertson’s wisely honed compassion extends to a gentle touching of George on the shoulder) or realistic, but no-one stays long. Only old Candy with his crushed hand and ancient dog (which puppet seemingly takes time out of Warhorse, a bit clunky). Andrew Boyer is on vintage form here, shambling age with precision, grief at his dog’s mercy-killing, querulousness and a darting eagerness clutching at one last happiness.


The other old timer in ticking solitude, Crooks, is a black worker with a crook back; he’s effectively miscegnated banished to his own room where ironically he can live far more comfortably. Kevin Mathurin layers his quizzical approach: boundaries for Lennie, then a recognition of his harmless nature. Mathurin with the help of glasses and a perched irony exudes both a learned and frustrated man, able to shed his erudition for home truths, and simple-seeming, aware of his limited rights. He’s the only book-read man in the place; he shrouds it.


They’re both kept on out of guilt by the here slightly less kindly owner, Robert Ashe’s hulking Boss, whose unkind son Curly (the slightly-built Kamran Darabi-Ford rasps and snaps, ramping tension wherever he goes) and unnamed Wife spark the action. Darren Bancroft’s Carlson here is much more a protagonist prepared to take on Curly, and harry Egan’s Whit is a foolish sensation-seeker, spoiling to watch a good fight from a safe spot.


It was Scott Fitzgerald of whom it was said ‘his style is hope, his message despair’. There’s a touch of this in the way George and Lennie’s plan leaks to Candy who reveals that crushed hand garnered significant compensation, enough for them all to plan. It’s the quietly embittered Crooks who unbends, confined to that segregated room where he’s invaded first by Lennie, then Candy and George looking for Lennie. The climactic meeting of all these characters shows how hope flickers. Then Candy’s Wife appears. The way Steinbeck uses the fate of animals to point up the human condition is seized on by director Unsworth, mainly through Lennie’s quiet dislocations, though gaps at a couple of bone-cracks literally snap our attention.


This is a first-rate revival. It’s less starrily designed than Derngate with a superb wheeling centre, but its memorable simplicity exudes a lit richness with ample dry ice to exude chaff. Everything snaps and sings with a lyric devastation that asks with Guthrie just whose land this is, in a year where presidential excesses have seen the US population ask the same question for the first time in generations.