In their first production of the New Year, The Octagon stages John Steinbeck’s examination of male companionship and the enduring power of hope. Lennie (Kieran Hill) is physically powerful but has limited intellect and memory. Although safeguarded by the wily George (Andrew Langtree) his neediness and over-tactile nature constantly gets the duo in trouble. The fairy tale of setting up a farm that George uses to appease Lennie ironically provides a sense of purpose for some of the downtrodden characters that they encounter.
Steinbeck describes a merciless world in which pets (and by extension people) past their best are put down. Director David Thacker mitigates this bleak outlook into a gentler reflective mood of regret. Ciaran Bagnall’s adaptable set of muted browns creates an autumnal atmosphere but one with a dark undertone captured in a stream that looks stagnant rather than fresh. Fiona Hampson’s bright and sensual performance really stands out against such a monochrome background.
Kieran Hill avoids straightforward patois preferring a more complex interpretation in his role as Lennie. There are crowd-pleasing comedy elements but Hill does not shy away from showing that Lennie can be as irritating as any dependent relative and his desperate neediness is creepy and even a bit threatening. The only real tension in a leisurely production comes from Hill’s performance. Rather than simply play George as the moral heart of the play Andrew Langtree offers a very human interpretation of someone only half aware of his own motivations but still a decent man approaching the end of his tether.
The performances are excellent in isolation and the actors’ interaction is well handled by Thacker to address the puzzling issue of the relationship between George and Lennie. Thacker avoids any sexual element and instead suggests a combination of an exasperated parent/child and old married couple with all the sulks and tantrums that the latter involves.
Thacker may have misjudged the pace of the play. There is a marked lack of tension and no sense of gathering doom. As a result, the tragic potential of the play is not fully realised. One can understand the director’s wish to show respect for the material but the result is a play that is appreciated rather than enjoyed.