A classic piece of American literature and a popular text for study in education, Of Mice and Men was John Steinbeck’s first venture into writing a novella aimed for the stage. Although its language and themes may seem quite contentious in today’s society, performed by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and The Touring Consortium, the power of Steinbeck’s original story endures.
With some strong performances, there is much to enjoy from this adaptation of the novel.
Set in 1930’s California, just after the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men tells the story of George and Lennie struggling to find consistent work before the pair find stable employment on a ranch. Lennie, who has an appetite for soft things, is the stronger worker but lacks intelligence, while George, his only friend and travelling companion, keeps him out of trouble, while holding the dream that one day they will own some land of their own – to live the American Dream. How can they make their dreams come true in these truly testing times and how far will it push their fraternal love?
Liz Ascroft’s simple, yet fitting set design gives the play the harsh backdrop it requires to be so powerful. The beautiful colours employed in both the set and the lighting (Simon Bond) conveys the harsh heat of the brutal Californian summer, as well as hinting at hope just over the horizon. The brilliant sound design by Nick Powell incorporates a great deal of live instrumental and vocal accompaniment but it is the voices that particularly add a sinister undertone to the play. These sounds are mostly made by the performers on-stage and this sense of constantly being watched only adds to the tension and intensity of the inevitable climax.
The arc of this piece, however, is not entirely drawn out. The emotional core of the play comes from the audience feeling drawn in to George and Lennie’s relationship and the want for them to achieve their dream in such harsh times. Unfortunately, we never quite feel that desperation. Although the key performances from the intense William Rodell (as George) and Kristian Phillips’ hulking Lennie, are thoroughly convincing, there is little empathy to be had with them, and because of that, the play never reaches its emotional peak. The strongest point of the night comes from Saoirse-Monica Jackson, as Curley’s wife, who describes with such passion and longing her dreams of a life in Hollywood. Although her passion is palpable, the feeling that this is nothing more than a fruitless pursuit is sobering.
Of Mice and Men is a poignant piece about hope of a better life in an increasingly Darwinian state and is as relevant now as it ever has been. With cuts in welfare being announced regularly and the apparent self-preservation in the upper echelons of society, for those existing on the breadline on the gap between a life of fulfilment and mere survival, its theme resonate much stronger. For every Lennie out there, we must hope that there is a George.
This is certainly a clear re-telling of the classic tale and simple enough for everyone to understand. With some strong performances, there is much to enjoy from this adaptation of the novel. As a piece of theatre however, it doesn’t have the emotional impact one would hope for, and leaves the audience a little flat by the end.