For his first production as the Playhouse's new associate director, Mark Rosenblatt has chosen to reinterpret John Steinbeck's classic work, giving this Depression-era tale a new, but highly reverential, spin. The result is a piece of theatre that feels both authentic and original.
The story tells of George (Henry Pettigrew) and Lennie (Dyfrig Morris), rootless drifters who travel between farms and ranches in the American West of the 1920s looking for casual manual labour. While George is smart and quick-witted, Lennie is slow and childlike. They make for a mismatched but devoted pair, and share a dream of a saving enough money to buy a tract of land. Unfortunately, Lennie's size and strength combined with his lack of mental capacity often leads him into trouble, which George has to fix. When they arrive at their latest job, it seems their landowning dream might come true, but there's more trouble heading their way.
This is a tale rooted in the Depression, as scores of men found themselves without steady work, forced to become journeymen traveling the country without company or security in a time when the thought of owning a little parcel of land was, for most, a folly, and their pleasures in life revolved around the odd shot of whiskey or few hours at the "cat house". However, Of Mice and Men has obvious relevance today as securing a "job for life" and property ownership becomes less of an option for many people, which makes it an excellent choice for a modern restaging.
While Steinbeck's story is traditionally seen as a tale of male friendship, the emphasis here is on the fact that these are characters who largely live on hope, in a place where there's little cause to be hopeful. This serves to amplify the tragedy and makes for highly effective drama.
For this production, Rosenblatt has also brought on board US Avant-Americana musician and actor, Heather Christian (who previously worked on Mission Drift at the National Theatre). Christian plays the pivotal role of Curley's wife and also provides the musical score, both as composer and live performer.
This is the point at which Steinbeck purists might starts to worry. After all, does Of Mice and Men really need a soundtrack?
As it goes, the addition of a score is at once unnecessary and necessary; unnecessary because Steinbeck's words and the strength of the drama need no embellishment, but, in this production, the score becomes a necessary and integral part of the story.
Rather than supplying a "soundtrack", Christian has composed an atmospheric (and sympathetic) musical underscore that complements the action and follows the characters' emotional arc, weaving itself seamlessly into the unfolding drama. At no point does it feel extraneous or tacked on, and there's obviously been much thought put into how to integrate the score into Steinbeck's words, work which has paid off handsomely.
The score also adds to the overall epic feel of the production, which is an essential element of the story. After all, this is a tale that unfolds in a vast landscape, which represents both freedom and emptiness, where men could, and did, spend their whole lives moving great distances to find scarce work and escape trouble. Fortunately, the creative team have the huge Quarry Theatre space in which to convey this landscape, and designer Max Jones has once again outdone himself, setting a new high bar for the Playhouse (a bar which was already pretty high). Here we have a huge barn and barley field, complete with a windmill and a river - it looks wonderful.
Acting-wise, it's hard to pick a favourite performance, as they are equally strong across the board. At the centre, Pettigrew and Morris make an excellent pairing, generating true chemistry as best friends George and Lennie. Morris makes Lennie humorous, but always believable and sympathetic, while Pettigrew's George comes across as both strong and vulnerable. Elsewhere, Johnson Willis is excellent (and heartbreaking) as old man Candy and John Trindle makes a terrific Curley, a rancher with a hair-trigger temper and a wife with "an eye" for the other men on the ranch. The rest of the cast is also terrific and the accents are spot-on.
While there's one scene towards the end that comes across as a slight misstep, overall Rosenblatt, Christian and the rest of the team have done a terrific job in pulling off the tricky feat of reimaging a timeless and well-loved classic.
With James Brining at the helm, the West Yorkshire Playhouse is currently moving into a new era, and this production is a wonderful example of the great, and varied, work the Leeds theatre is producing. Go and enjoy it while you can.
Of Mice and Men continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 29 March 2014.