The Grapes of Wrath – Review

John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, was written in the 1930s when America was gripped by the Great Depression and hundreds of thousands of poor and wretched people drifted across the country looking for a better life.

So you can understand why theatres would want to revive the stage drama at a time when thousands, if not millions, of dispossessed refugees have fled their homelands in search of an idyll that they can only dream about.

But do we have to be browbeaten with a clumsy metaphor? This joint production of The Grapes of Wrath at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre features ‘community ensemble’ in modern dress, standing around looking haunted, hungry and homeless while the professional cast play out Frank Galati’s very long, very slow, adaptation circa 1930.

Instead of the evocative dust bowls of Oklahoma, and the shack that was home to the Joad family, director Abbey Wright has gone to Ikea. Well, not really, but you’ll probably find something like the two big boxes that fill the stage hiding down Aisle 17.

A band is occasonally on the top, strumming electric guitars or a saw, the cast clamber up, inside and through as the boxes double as indispensable props. Hell, they are the only props.

So, above all else, the audience must be blessed with a vivd imagination.

This turgid production stretches for bum-numbing 165-minutes and is in dire need of editing. There is a brief moment of animation when two of the male cast strip off to plunge into a ‘river’ (full-frontal so don’t take your granny or impressionable kids).

But the moment is soon over and a gloom descends over the production – aided by some seriously underpowered lighting.

I couldn’t warm to Wright’s pedestrian direction with poorly choreographed fights that were played out in near Stygian darkness, a badly executed storm scene, a complete lack of tension in a story packed with it, a loose rein on her cast, some of who were making a pig’s ear of their dialogue, and a design concept that robbed a great tale of any atmosphere. And why the hell did three men on stilts suddenly appear and break into song?

The use of a multi-cultural cast also raises the race issue of 1930s America, something I don’t recollect from the book, or are we being asked to just ignore it?.

If we believe that old – and young – Tom Joad, are black, with the former married to a white woman, then the family’s 2,000 mile trek across the US, from Oklahoma to California, would have been impossible given the prejudice and segregation laws at the time.

Yet there is no dialogue to reflect this. Or is the audience supposed to assume colour blindness?

Daniel Booroff’s strange, affected and rather endearing Noah sadly didn’t stay too long before dropping out of the road-trip but we were allowed to follow the burgeoning pregnancy and moving performance of Molly Logan as Rose of Sharon.

Steinbeck wrote such a heart-breaking and tragic novel, a great social commentary about the time, that it was impossible not to be affected by it.

This producton, from Royal & Derngate, Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Nottingham Playhouse and W.Yorks Playhousem is a poor representation.

Playing on the Royal stage until May 20

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