Review: OF MICE AND MEN, Birmingham Rep

Steinbeck's classic Depression-era novel returns to the stage

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Guest Blog: Nia Morais on Her First Play IMRIE, Welsh Fantasy and The Dark FantasticJohn Steinbeck's 1937 novel, set in California during the Great Depression, may be a period piece, but the parallels with current life in the UK are unmistakable. Dealing with themes of poverty, displacement, prejudice and the desperation for independence, Of Mice and Men makes a timely return to the Birmingham Rep stage in this new production directed by Iqbal Khan.

Migrant farm workers George and Lennie dream of buying a plot of land, with a room of their own, land and animals they can tend and no boss to answer to. It's a simple dream, but one that's always seemed out of reach. When they begin a new farm job and meet an elderly worker called Candy, an opportunity to make good on their dream presents itself and hopes rise, but as the title of the play reminds us, best laid plans often go awry.

The Rep's stage is large but Ciarán Bagnall's smart timber-effect set closes the space down, using tilting sets of beams to represent bunkhouses, barns, and at the end, an external landscape that may be wide-reaching but feels tight and claustrophobic. Bagnall's lighting is equally effective, with the optimistic oranges of sunset giving way to the cold blues of night. The harsh shadows of the beams cut prison-bar-like lines through even the warmer scenes, a constant reminder of the constraints of the time for men like George and Lennie.

Tom McCall's George is the lynchpin of the show, and he perfectly portrays the simmering anger and frustration of a man whose life has been a series of disappointments. His determination to protect Lennie and keep him out of trouble is his primary driving force, and the affection between the two is subtly but sweetly conveyed through the actors' physical movements. Opposite him, Wiliam Young gives an affecting performance as Lennie, who George describes as "like a kid with no harm in him except he's strong". Young, who has complex learning difficulties, brings depth and pathos to Lennie, as well as humour and lightness. This production features several talented actors with disabilities, which is a pleasure to see.

Lee Ravitz is completely believable as Candy, though unfortunately many of his lines are difficult to understand. Maddy Hill also makes an impact as Curley's Wife, the partner of the boss' son, who is neglected by her husband and ostracised by the workers. It's a relief to see the character presented as sympathetic here rather than simply attention-seeking or oversexed, as Steinbeck's portrayal of women can certainly be problematic.

The play as a whole can be a difficult watch, with its racist, misogynist and ableist language. It also suffers with pacing issues, and at a length of two hours and 45 minutes it sometimes feels like every word of the novel has been preserved here, to the play's detriment. Conversations are rambling and circular, and ideas are repeated often, while conversely some big moments are underplayed and not given breathing space. But while the route to the end may be long, it's certainly worth getting there, and McCall and Young shine in the heartbreaking final scene.

Of Mice and Men is at Birmingham Rep until 8 April, then touring

Photo Credit: Ciarán Bagnall




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