John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men has had a rough ride since it was first published in 1937 with its coarse, ranch-house, language, violence, racism and misogyny causing increasing controversy and criticism as the years have passed and attitudes changed.
While it is taught in a some schools, and is regularly cited in the UK’s top 100 best loved novels, Of Mice And Men has been a frequent target of censors and is included in America’s Most Challenged Books of 21st Century.
Sellador’s faithful stage adaptation, which opened last night at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatre at the start of a UK tour, is equally unsettling but the storytelling never fails to impress.
Steinbeck wrote from the heart, and from observation, and a lot of the melodrama was played out right in front of him as he joined migrant workers scratching out a living at farms and ranches during The Great Depression.
All the men shared a dream, that one day they would save enough to be their own masters. To buy a smallholding, raise a few sheep and chickens, and live off the fat of the land.
But for almost all of them it remained an unfulfilled ambition. The truth was that they earned little and spent most of it just surviving day to day. It was a wretched, solitary, existence.
The production is very much a slow burner with the story only intermittently coming to life in the first act before finally hitting its stride after the interval.
Director Guy Unsworth’s impressively lit opening – courtesy of designers Bretta Gerecke (lighting) and David Woodhead (set) – shows desperate men dragging cheap suitcases past ranches in a sandstorm while searching for work. It’s classic Steinbeck.
At the heart of this tragedy, originally a novella, are two dreamers – George Milton and his big ox of a friend, Lennie Small – looking to make a few bucks as a down-payment on a place of their own.
This odd couple have been offered work on a Californian ranch after leaving their last town in a hurry.
In today’s language we’d describe Lennie as intellectually challenged. He has the attention span of a goldfish, a preponderance to stroking tactile surfaces, whether it be a dead mouse or a girl’s hair, is seen imitating the actions of others and is unaware of his own strength.
Lennie’s powerful physique lends itself to hard manual labour but he relies entirely on George for getting him through life.
His child-like naivety is frequently mistaken and misunderstood, landing him in trouble, with George, inevitably, bailing him out.
The ranch, probably typical of its time, is a beacon for lonely drifters whose life is lived out in a certain solitude, either enforced or voluntary.
The only black man, Crooks, is segregated and forced to sleep in a barn, while, in the main bunk house, everyone else keeps their own company.
To modern audiences one-handed Candy, Slim, Whit, the surly Carlson, The Boss, his pugnacious son, Curley, and Curley’s come-hither wife – who isn’t even afforded a name – are all stereotypes straight from a million-and-one books, TV westerns and movies.
But the ensemble work hard to give each man a character firmly rooted in reality. Andrew Boyer is particularly compelling as the elderly Candy whose life has been spent serving others.
His old sheep dog, his only companion, lives on borrowed time, as does he, terrified that The Boss will throw him out when his usefulness is over.
Kamran Darabi Ford gets to wear the black stetson as the quick-tempered, muscular Curley with a Napoleon complex and a jealous streak while his dad, The Boss (Robert Ashe) is under-used and rarely seen.
Steinbeck doesn’t give much thought to Curley’s wife who is little more than a plot device.
Rosemary Boyle plays the wife as cute and rosy, apple-cheeked, rather than provocative and sexy, but her frequent visits to the bunk-house for company and conversation, still inflames the men and with tragic consequences.
The lumbering Lennie is well played by Matthew Wynn who captures the man’s innocence with the lightest of expressions. He occasionally overplays the repetitive dialogue but it is impossible not to be affected by his simplicity.
His climactic scene with Richard Keightley’s George is shocking and terribly moving.
It may have been written 80 years ago but Of Mice And Men is still topical and relevant, highlighting, as it does, the affects of climate change, economic uncertainty and migration on people’s lives.
Of Mice and Men plays on the Royal stage until Friday.
Remaining tour dates
CYMRU, Theatr Clwyd, 19 – 24 February
GLASGOW, Theatre Royal, 26 February – 3 March
SALISBURY Playhouse, 5 – 10 March
BRIGHTON, Theatre Royal, 12 – 17 March
WIMBLEDON, New Theatre, 19 – 24 March
TUNBRIDGE WELLS, Assembly Halls, 26 – 31 March
MANCHESTER Opera House, 9 – 14 April
SWANSEA Grand Theatre, 17 – 21 April.
A story of friendship, despair and dreams amid uncertain times. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men takes a while to get going but the shocking and tragic story is well told.