A little piece of America on the Cheltenham stage….

Of Mice and Men Review

[SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT!!]

When I first read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men it was about 1989 and I was aware only of an America that was relentlessly feeding me the likes of Dynasty, the A Team and Baywatch. This novel was an eye- and mind-opening antidote to all that nonsensical wotnot.

This was the real America that I held in my hands, and this book, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, truly opened my eyes not only to a culture and history that fascinated me, but they both also allowed me to have an opinion about stuff. I was given free rein to discuss racism, women’s roles in society, and the nature of humankind. Wow, this was all the stuff that I wasn’t allowed to discuss at meal times at home and I flippin’ well loved it. My brain was in overdrive with this book, as I lapped up the American scenery of North California, the American colloquialisms, and the pursuit of the American dream.

So, when this show appeared at the Everyman in Cheltenham I just had to go and see it, to find out if the novel I loved could be translated into a stage play and still have the same impact on me. This adaptation of Of Mice and Men did not disappoint.

Of Mice and Men - William Rodell as 'George' & Kristian Phillips as 'Lennie' - cShaun Webb

George and Lenny

Having returned from my own modern-day pursuit of the American dream, I was keen to hear American accents again, and I wanted to feel for a few hours like I was back in the USA, albeit in a 1930s California in the midst of the depression. Gosh I miss America, and to hear the opening bluegrass music elevated my soul, placing me right where I wanted to be. A simple, but evocative set, it was the backdrop for a 2 hour journey of emotions.

The moment those two guys come on stage, you’re pulled in by George and Lenny. I think we all know must have come across or known a Lenny at some point in our lives. I bet every single person in that audience was recollecting how they treated their own Lenny…

And that’s the beauty of The Touring Consortium Theatre Company and Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s stage play, directed by Roxana Silbert. It’s simple, uncomplicated acting presenting the words and narrative that John Steinbeck created, pushing you gently at first to engage and make assumptions, and then to have those assumptions pulled away from under you.  It makes you think and we all need to do that at some point.

I tried not to assess the play as a GCSE student, but since half the audience were teenage kids who were obviously all studying the book, I began to wonder how they were interpreting the themes.  I remember from those hazy GCSE days that the theme of loneliness was key, as well as vulnerability. I began to remember my thoughts from then….how does George treat Lenny, really? The commentary on these intertwined roles is complex throughout the performance, with moments of compassion and frustration, bullying and responsibility from George and such fascinating innocence from Lenny. The actors handled the relationship superbly.

I wish I had not known the ending [SPOILER ALERT]. I was more acutely aware of lines such as ‘you broke it by petting it’ and ‘I just want to feel her dress’. The foreshadowing in Steinbeck’s words were lingering in the audience by those who knew what was to occur, but we all were captivated, perhaps holding out hope that the ending had changed. FYI, it hadn’t.

I totally bought into George and Lenny’s dream. The more they said it, the more I believed it could be true. It’s like the stuff all the success coaches will tell you – if you visualise it, it will happen. Except, it also might not….

One of the lines that resonated with me was George’s ‘You feel free when you ain’t got a job and you ain’t hungry’. I thought about this for a long time after. How is that possible? It must be possible for someone. Then I realised my focus was also on how much I love an American double negative. Only cowboys and Elvis can really get away with them, and they absolutely work in this play because of the true-to-form American dialect, so don’t nobody say otherwise….. [see what I did there?!] It’s still uncomfortable to hear the N word, though. That will never sit right.

I love an orchestrated and choreographed set change by the cast to music and I nearly had to applaud how expertly this was done. It was a joy to see Dudley Sutton (yes, Tinker from Lovejoy!) cast as old Candy. He’s almost as old as his dog, wonderfully played by the grey-muzzled Bentley, a local dog who had to audition for the role. We melted as he sniffed out the snacks in the audience and cried our hearts out when he left.

Now, let’s talk American accents, and I have no legs to stand on here, because my American friends all said that my accent tended to travel from the Deep South, all the way up to Boston, and settle drunkenly in Philly. I was not consistent, unlike these cast members. Lenny’s (Kristian Phillips) was spot on and George’s (William Rodell) didn’t falter (once he’d got his tongue round those tricky vowel pronunciations), but Curly appeared to have spent some time in the Bronx. He was bringing on the gangster somewhat, but it kind of worked for the role of the absolute terror that Curly is. Candy might also have lost his accent slightly somewhere in the Atlantic, but who cares –it’s flippin’ Tinker!

Of Mice and Men - Dudley Sutton as 'Candy'  - cShaun Webb

Dudley Sutton as Tinker

And back for a moment to my audience. There’s nothing more amusing than seeing a bunch of British teenage boys blush and flick their hair and snigger in embarrassment at the line about Curly’s hand staying soft in his glove of Vaseline for his wife’s sake. Gotta love that line, unless you’re a 15 year old boy at the theatre with your teacher….

George and Lenny is like a bromance of sorts. God love those boys! You know it’s all going to go haywire when it is declared the ranch they get to ‘ain’t no good place’. But, selfishly hooray for me, there are cowboys! And I am a sucker for a cowboy. Slim got my vote as the hot one on the ranch – he can buck his barley in my direction anytime. 😉

But here I am using my coarse English humour to avoid the matter at hand. And that matter is those boys, and especially that big guy and ‘nice fella’ Lenny who just wants to live off the fat off the land and tend to his rabbits. Gawd, the dream speech got me with its beautiful simplicity. It’s the American optimism that I love to hear, just woefully and tragically misplaced, and sensitively performed, in this play.

The issue of women is a tough one in Of Mice and Men.  Initially, we view Curly’s wife as a bad person and a tart – in fact, we are told as much. But the truth is much deeper than that. Like Lenny, like George, like Crooks, she is lonely – in fact the loneliest of all, potentially. They are all rejects in their own way, and this is illustrated and performed in a spiritual way by each character. I struggle with the role of women in what I call the ‘olden days’. What kind of life did women have back then? It angers me, and saddens me, but Saoirse-Monica Jackson brought some much-needed depth to the unnamed character of Curly’s wife. So significant that she has no name, and yet she has such a big, American, Hollywood dream that lies unfulfilled.

Of Mice and Men - Saoirse-Monica Jackson as ‘Curley’s Wife’ - cShaun Webb

Curly’s wife

And then Crooks, showcasing the racism of the time through his being ostracised from the men’s quarters. But he’s reading. Note that he’s reading – a subtle nod to how smart Crooks (Dave Fishley) is. A fella who’s pushed out of the society he lives in, but who has got his wits about him, I adored this performance, and his accent was like honey on pancakes. It’s he who is effectively at the bottom on the heap in this play, but he’s learned to manage his status. Society ranks those that it casts out – Crooks, Curly’s wife, Lenny, George are all in this jumbled pyramid of outcasts.

My view is that every child and every adult in every land should read this book and see this magnificent stage play. It should be law. Read it, see it, think about it. What would you do? How could you apply the positive leaning from it in every facet of your life and grow a better, more tolerant, appreciative, understanding society?  How and why do we judge so and from where is hatred born?

Of Mice and Men show is powerful, and tear jerking, and all credit to the cast for evoking such emotion. Those were real tears on stage and in the audience. Yes, be warned, there will not be a dry eye in the house.

The show runs in Cheltenham at the Everyman Theatre till 27 February and is then on tour across the UK. Spread the word #miceandmentour @TCTcompany @theatrecloud

Turn off the TV and go and see this show, wherever you are.

Pictures credited to Shaun Webb 🙂

 

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