How do you make an epic novel into a three-hour play? The book in question is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the Mercury Theatre has just opened the Frank Galati adaptation in a production by Tony Casement. The set by Dawn Allsopp is sparse – a matter of fractured planks making a wide semi-circle around the acting area. Props are minimal and multi-functional.
Ben Payne’s lighting shifts us between the hours and between the thousands of miles travelled by the migrant families fleeing the dustbowl states of America’s mid-West for the promised land with its orange groves of California in the 1930s. It includes a superb night sky. So it’s all down to the acting if we are to become caught up emotionally in this particular odyssey.
Lynch-pin of the action, just as she is of her extended family, is Ma. Nicky Goldie gives a marvellously affecting portrait of this simple woman who refuses to let tragedy blight her soul. Gary Shelford is her son Tom, newly released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter, and he presents a man who knows the difference between right and wrong even if he doesn’t always act accordingly. The older generation is represented by Gillian Cally as Grandma (for whom the Promised Land has infinite varieties) and Adrian Stokes as the irrepressible Grandpa.
Colchester Community Acting Company provides the crowds for certain scenes, particularly effective both in the wayside camps and in the barn dance sequence. Threading his own spiritual and physical journey through all this is former preacher Casy (Tim Treslove), thoroughly credible as he exchanges one fading, sacred call for a more secular one. Of the action yet outside it are the three musicians – Ian Harris, Jim Kitson and Christopher Staines.