With an apology for being faithful to Steinbeck’s racist language both written in the programme and announced at the start, the team behind Of Mice and Men are clearly concerned about causing offence. However, no apology is required for their fidelity to the text. The play is set in 1930s rural California and deals with themes of racism, sexism, loneliness, poverty, and broken dreams and, for such a young cast, the pupils of Merchiston and St George’s schools do a fine job of portraying a miserable world so removed from their own. The whole cast works well together and has a very professional approach.
It takes some getting used to to believe that Gregor McMillan as George is playing a world-weary man at least twice his age, but he has the presence and talent to make it convincing, though there are times when he struggles with the Western accent. His propensity for sighing heavily at everything – similar to that of Tom Bisset, who is otherwise good as Slim – is also a little tiring. Gregor Dickie is most impressive, however; his Lennie is almost a carbon-copy of John Malkovich in the film, but he is consistent, believable, and very watchable. There are moments when the relationship between the two protagonists needs to be more varied between tenderness and tension, but the heartbreaking final scene is excellent.
Ruaraidh Drummond, Jonny Timms, and Steph Binnie’s co-direction also shows good awareness, both of the text and, unusually at the Fringe, of the space, involving all sections of the three-sided audience. Often an actor will have his back to the audience but never obtrusively or as a sign of amateurish blocking.
The production is frustratingly inconsistent, however; at times close to faultless, at others ruined by poor timing, fluffed lines, unnecessary blackouts or, most conspicuously, a lack of props. Despite being armed with hay bales and rifles, bus tickets and work slips are made of thin air and all the animals are simply mimed; when George asks Lennie what he’s got in his pocket, Lennie’s deceitful response, crucial to the story, that he ‘ain’t got nothin’’ in his pocket is, unfortunately, true. This becomes by stages more ludicrous as we are obliged to imagine a puppy, and then Candy’s old ‘dog’ is led away to be shot. I am not asking for a live dog to be on stage, but this is a lazy way out.
It is mistakes such as this, and missed opportunities such as half-hearted attempts to make scene changes part of the action, that let down a production that, with a little more consistency, would be a great success.