It’s not difficult to guess that Of Mice and Men is one of this year’s GCSE set texts - the Old Vic is packed with schoolchildren, some of whom (judging from overheard remarks before curtain-up) have been dragged there reluctantly. Luckily, Jonathan Church’s stylish production of this Steinbeck literary classic, helped enormously by Simon Higlett’s evocative set, has them entranced from the outset.
Joe McGann has taken over from Matthew Kelly as Lennie, the slow-witted giant who doesn’t know his strength. Not having seen the original, I can’t comment on my colleagues’ appraisal of Kelly’s excitability, but McGann gives a performance of quiet dignity, his face a mark of doltish trust – as wide-eyed and innocent as the animals he inadvertently kills. Still, if Kelly’s facial tics have, by and large, disappeared, there remains an abundance of bodily mannerisms that do seem rather overdone.
But there’s an excellent performance by Andrew Schofield as the resilient George, world-weary and with few illusions about the sad life lying ahead of him and the disappointments to come. He captures the real loneliness of Steinbeck’s text.
What strikes me most about this pair are the echoes of Laurel and Hardy in their relationship. When Schofield’s George despairingly cries that he’d be better off on his own, we can hear the self-deluded tones of Oliver Hardy. I suspect that these similarities are accidental, but the association imbues some lines with unintended comic resonance. Lennie’s gut-wrenching cry of “I done a bad thing”, after killing Curly’s wife, elicits a gale of laughter, which disastrously undermines the poignancy of the moment.
I agree with my colleague’s appraisal that some of the other themes of the play have been overwhelmed. There’s no real sense of the despair and desperation that motivates so many of Steinbeck’s characters - the ranch where they work is seen almost as a rural idyll rather than a place of back-breaking work and shattered dreams.
This is a well-crafted, generally well-acted production – with special mention due to Oscar James for his nice cameo as the crippled black worker, Crooks - but perhaps it’s too slick for its own good. Still, on the night I attended, it raised a hearty cheer from its young audience who sat engrossed throughout and that’s a recommendation in itself.
- Maxwell Cooter
NOTE: The following review dates from October 2003 and this production's initial West End season at the Savoy Theatre.
As timings go, it couldn't have been much worse. Just before Matthew Kelly was due to open in this Birmingham Rep touring production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men this past February (See News, 11 Feb 2003), his name hit the tabloid headlines amidst accusations of child sex abuse. Despite the scandal, Kelly stuck to his guns and the show did indeed go on, with the groundless charges later dropped.
For such fortitude alone, Kelly seems fully deserving of this West End transfer and of the opening night standing ovation - and four curtain calls - that have now come his way. Even without external pressures, his decision to play Steinbeck's anti-hero Lennie Small - a simpleton who, while a gentle giant, is by no means a harmless one - is courageous. It's a challenging part, especially for a man best known as the affable presenter of Stars in Their Eyes.
Kelly rises to that challenge with gusto, and there are moments when his portrayal is deeply affecting - the delicacy with which he tucks himself into his sleeping blanket at the end of a long day's tramping, for instance. But elsewhere, he veers towards frenzied overstatement, with a too-full catalogue of facial tics.
And (I find myself in agreement with my colleague below) Kelly's excitability infects the rest of the cast and skews the pace of proceedings. The result is an accelerated production in which nothing much seems to happen because none of the piece's real emotions - longing, loneliness, loyalty - are given enough time to rise fully to the surface.
The sense of quiet desperation that made Steinbeck's 1937 novel such a classic - a tale of Depression that relates to much more than the economic state of the nation - is captured only fleetingly, mainly by George Costigan as a sturdy but world-weary George and by Joanne Moseley as Curley's wife, harbouring dreams of Hollywood.
Simon Higlett's dusty ranch set, with its warm hues of orange and brown, evokes sweat and sunsets and John Tams' musical compositions add to the wistful mood. But overall, you're left strangely unsatisfied by Jonathan Church's production. It shows a degree of mastery but still falls short of magic.
Powerful, cruel and complex, John Steinbeck's tragedy resonates way beyond
its setting of rural California in the Depression years of the 1930s. But it
needs a production and performances that can find the depth within the
writing. Not just from the leads, but right through the cast of ten. It is,
however, the portrayal of George and Lennie, on which the play succeeds or
Costigan is absolutely spot on as George, the little guy with the big
heart and even bigger imagination. Stuck in a system where the only work is
labouring on the farms, he knows how to dream and take his pleasure in the
simple things of life. His friendship with Lennie is a clear, compassionate
one, as he tries to protect the lunk from his own strength and the dire
consequences of his actions.
Kelly is a revelation as Lennie. He has a real presence on stage, authoritative and alluring. There is, however, too much of the method in the way he goes about it. Having decided to be Lennie, he never lets up and, consequently, his characterisation gets more and more overblown. The problem leaks out into the rest of the production, which is generally played at such a pitch that, when it needs to increase the emotion, it has nowhere to go and becomes distorted.
The only point of calm is Julian Protheroe's Slim, the trusted team hand on the farm where George and Lennie wind up. He has enough presence to indicate the depth of his character without having too many lines to say.
And in its few silences the true potential of the piece is found. Particularly when, in the first act of humane cruelty, the old man Candy's dog is taken outside and shot, the silence becomes intense and oppressive, thanks to some brilliantly conceived sound design.
Part of the play's greatness is that it allows Lennie's innocent eye to show up the inhumanity of men's attitudes to race and sex. Joanne Moseley as the tragic Curley's wife and Tyrone Huggins as Crooks, the black farmhand, both put in strong supporting performances that allow the main characters to fully explore their roles.