OF MICE AND MEN
The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 14th October, 2014
The REP’s resident artistic director Roxana Silbert delivers a knockout production of John Steinbeck’s classic tragedy of lowly men. She has assembled a strong ensemble of players and draws from them powerful performances in a somewhat lyrical, naturalistic way in a stylised setting. This mixture of emotional truth and having the mechanics of the theatre in view all along works tremendously well, thanks to Liz Ascroft’s design and Simon Bond’s lighting but mainly, of course, due to the stellar company of actors.
Michael Legge is long-suffering, neurotic George, travelling across Depression-riddled America with companion Lennie, who is more of a hindrance than a help. As Lennie spoils things for George every step of the way and George displays his deep-rooted annoyance, you wonder why he stays with the big galoot. But as we meet other characters and their loneliness is painfully laid bare, we realise it is loneliness that binds George to liability Lennie. Even the nearest town is called Soledad (loneliness in Spanish).
Norman Bowman is striking as macho but warm-hearted Slim, while Ciaran O’Brien makes hothead Curley volatile and dangerous, a victim of small-man syndrome if ever there was one. James Hayes is heartbreaking as old timer Candy, evoking strong emotions as he carries a bit of old sack, fashioned to represent his elderly dog, and Dave Fishley brings both dignity and anguish to crippled Crooks. Lorna Nickson-Brown is trouble on legs as Curley’s otherwise unnamed wife (apart from ‘tart’) – They all come across as very real, although they are cogs that Steinbeck winds ever tighter so the tragic climax becomes inexorable and inevitable. The American Dream is unattainable, he says, but it’s what keeps people going in times of extreme hardship. One wonders what the British equivalent is, during this period of austerity. Vera Lynn, perhaps, promising blue birds over Dover’s white cliffs…?
The central relationship between George and Lennie is the keystone of the entire piece. Silbert brings their contrasting aspects into sharp focus. Michael Legge is superb as crotchety George, but Benjamin Dilloway’s Lennie is an outstanding piece of character work. His Lennie amuses, touches and frightens us, all within a range of seconds, and back again. He is a not-so gentle giant who should not be allowed in a petting zoo.
Even if you know the story, this production cranks up the tension, making the brief flashes of humour and the briefer glimpses of hope of a better life all the more poignant. Intense, gripping and devastating, this Of Mice And Men resonates with humanity unloved and the tragedy of unrealisable dreams.