The best laid schemes

of mice and men

Benjamin Dilloway as Lennie and Lorna Nickson-Brown as Curley’s Wife. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz  

Of Mice and Men

Birmingham Rep

*****

STEINBECK is one of the giants of American literature with that precious ability to chronicle the lives, hopes and dreams of ordinary people caught up in the Great Depression.

Of Mice and Men was described as a little masterpiece in Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize citation and Birmingham Rep’s new stage production of the 1937 novella goes a long way to living up to that, it is a little masterpiece of its own.

Liz Ascroft’s setting is simple and open, from the plains of California ranches, to a bunk house, stables and a huge grain chute, all appearing and disappearing with a minimum of choreographed fuss by the cast who find themselves scene shifters or members of an excellent band, geetar and fiddle in the background.

The musicians are Jan Knightley who also plays the stern boss, and ranch hands Crooks, Dave Fishley and Whit, Nicholas Goode.

The play opens with Woody Guthrie’s bittersweet This Land is Your Land as the oddest of couples, George, played by Michael Legge, and Lennie, played by Benjamin Dilloway, appear heading for a ranch where they have been promised work.

George is intelligent, but uneducated, while Lennie is huge and lumbering, with extraordinary strength but with a mental age that would struggle against a toddler.

Migrant workers don’t stay around long but George and Lennie stay less than most. They have just escaped from Weed in California where Lennie has been accused of rape after holding and stroking a girl’s dress because it was soft and “purty” and panicking when she screamed.

The pair don’t have a lot going for them, except a dream of one day having a place of their own, like so many who have passed through the ranch bunkhouse.

But perhaps this time will be different when they meet Candy, played by James Hayes, an old ranch hand with an old dog who offers to put money into their farm, including his compensation for losing his hand on the ranch, as long as he can live with them.

If only life were that simple. George and Lennie

The play is about friendships, George and Lennie, along with new friend Candy, and then there is George who finds a common ground with mule skinner Slim, played by Norman Bowman, the King of the Ranch hands. The pair are the most intelligent of the motley crew.

Slim’s dog has just had pups and he gives one to Lennie – a death sentence for the puppy who is petted to death.

Then there is Crooks, mentioned earlier as a musician. He is the stable buck, with a crippled leg after being kicked in the back by a horse. He is the best around at horseshoes and all the hands play with him, but he is not allowed in the bunkhouse because he is black, and blacks smell.

The same argument is made by Whit against Candy’s old dog, who he eventually takes outside to shoot, having persuaded Candy it is the best thing for him.

Benjamin Dilloway as Lennie and Michael Legge as George

And then the ranch hands have to contend with Curley, the boss’s son, a small man with a big temper and even bigger mean streak, who likes to throw his weight around, backed by being who he is.

He has some boxing skill and likes to pick on bigger men . . . and Lennie is a lot bigger, which means a clash is inevitable.

Then there is Curley’s wife, played by Lorna Nickson-Brown, we never did know her name, flame haired and the only woman around not in a town cat house. She flirts with the men, or, according to her, just wants someone to talk to because Curley ignores her.

With a hot headed husband who is the boss’s son, she is trouble on legs, and with a giant with the mind of a child who likes “soft, purty” things, there is a predictability about the climax when she asks Lennie to feel how soft her hair is.

A scream, panic, a plea for her to be quite and within a few explosive moments Lennie has done something bad again, except this is much worse than anything before.

With Curley on the rampage with a lynch mob wanting Lennie to be shot in the gut, a very painful way to die, and Lennie not really able to run away from a murder, George is left to provide a rescue of sorts in the only escape for Lennie he can see.

If there is a fault it is with the sound with dialogue lost a little at times but that is an inherent problem of the auditorium rather than sound designer Nick Powell or the delivery by the cast who kept accents well throughout.

Added to that Roaxana Silbert’s direction was superb. This is a long play at two hours and not a great deal happens yet she kept up a wonderful rhythm to keep everything moving along with time flying by.

As for the cast, there was not a single weak link. Nickson-Brown opened up the soul of Curley’s wife on the grain chute with Lennie as she talked about her disappointments, her betrayals and her dreams of Hollywood stardom.

And as for George and Lennie . . . Dilloway never once drifted into village idiot comedy with Lennie. He was always a person, slow witted, childlike, infuriating but always a person, while Legge as George managed to treat Lennie with a touching mix of friendship, compassion and regret of what might have been without him.

Not that there isn’t humour, at times the play is very funny with some glorious timing by Lennie in particular, bringing compassion and humanity to the production.

The novella is deservedly included in the English Lit GCSE syllabus which explains the large number of school age teenagers in the audience although perhaps teachers might point out to their charges that Curley’s wife’s lifeless body sliding down the grain chute as the climax of the play builds is not actually classed as a comedy moment, so the laughter was unnecessary.

This is a first class piece of theatre with action, directing, lighting and design all combining to create a superb production. To 01-11-14

Roger Clarke

14-10-14 

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