King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 30 April 2016
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Clearly told and doggedly true to its source, Touring Consortium’s Of Mice and Men is a solidly effective production that never quite sparks into life.
John Steinbeck’s novella featuring the two migrant ranch workers George and Lennie, set in Depression-era USA, works very well as a play. Indeed, it seems likely that it was structured with the stage at least partly in mind all along. There are sharply differentiated chapters serving as scenes, and a small, quickly delineated cast of characters who are inherently dramatic – to say nothing of the obvious echoes of classical tragedy in the inevitability of the story’s unravelling.
Lending itself to thematic analysis, yet easily assimilated on a basic level, the book is a staple of the school syllabus, and the all-important school party pound must be at least part of the reason why the stage adaptation comes around so frequently. This is both a blessing – it is always worth revisiting- and a curse, as it means that productions, wary of straying too far from being a straightforward revision aid, seem wedded to conventional story-telling realism as a result.
The opening of this production – by the Touring Consortium Theatre Company and Birmingham Rep – is correspondingly heartening. Liz Ascroft’s attractive set, already on view as the audience enter, has open sides displaying the backstage workings. The cast are often visible at the side of the stage, and it opens with a mournful ensemble version of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land.
So far, so intriguing; an interestingly Brechtian re-imagining of the text seems in prospect. However, this suggestion is not carried through in a dutiful production that avoids much more such novelty. Having made such an impact, the ensemble are seldom seen again except as scene shifters. This causes problems in itself, as huge items are moved on and off stage, slowing down the action and adding little.
The central duo dominate the story and need to be utterly convincing. Kristian Phillips, as gentle, doomed giant Lennie, gives a warmly human portrayal while successfully injecting a touch more menace into the character than is often the case. William Rodell, meanwhile, is all nervous, concerned energy as his travelling companion and physical opposite George.
However, there is a strange flatness to much of the action. The performances are believable enough, but resonance is lacking. Dave Fishley (Crooks, the stablehand picked on for his colour and disability) manages to achieve an expressiveness and communication with the audience that is lacking elsewhere.
Ben Stott (Curley, the pugnacious son of the boss) lacks impact, with Saoirse-Monica Jackson, as his nameless wife, does not quite convince as either manipulator or victim. Neil McKinven’s Carlson tries to increase the energy levels, but is fighting a losing battle.
The lack of drive and magnetism appears to be a deliberate choice at times, with Slim, the mule driver who is the ‘prince of the ranch’ given a deadpan, underplayed flavour by Jonah Russell, rather than the superhuman, ‘almost godlike’ figure Steinbeck describes.
Director Roxana Silbert seems to be striving for a downbeat verisimilitude that works on its own terms, but is strangely at odds with the expressionistic feel suggested at the outset – or indeed the tragic, near-mythic demands of the story. Dudley Sutton, for example, is by far the biggest name in the production, but is never in any danger of trying to steal the show – his aged, one-handed ‘swamper’ Candy is an unusually calm, undemonstrative figure – a stance echoed by Tara, the local dog performer who looks born to be on stage.
Nick Powell’s music and sound design, meanwhile, seem so determined not to be intrusive that their impact is correspondingly lessened; Simon Bond’s lighting, meanwhile, is clever, but tends to the prosaically demonstrative.
As a production, this is perfectly serviceable, doing justice to the source and clearly told. However, there is no real rawness on display, no suggestion of the huge and troubling themes that could be found.
Running time 2 hours 20 minutes (including one interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ.
Tuesday 26 – Saturday 30 April 2016
Daily: 7.30pm; Matinees Wed and Sat 19: 2.30pm.
Details and tickets from: http://www.edtheatres.com/miceandmen
Of Mice and Men on tour 2016:
Tue 26 – Sat 30 April
0131 529 6000
Tue 2 – Sat 7 May
029 2087 8889
Tue 10 – Sat 14 May
Mon 23 – Sat 28 May
01162 423 595