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Dudley Sutton as Candy (©Shaun Webb)

Review: Of Mice and Men at Oxford Playhouse

Esther Lafferty on a brilliant emotionally-charged thought-provoking production based on a short novel written in the 1930s by John Steinbeck
Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Curley's Wife) and Kristian Phillips (Lennie)

"If you have secondary school age children, take them (and some tissues). A disarming tale of the lives, hopes and dreams of the dispossessed, it’s a classic for good reason."

Step off the Oxford street into California deep in the Great Depression of 1930s America, and while the sparse open set shows an endless sky in soft pink and purple with golden wheat crops, prospects in these bleak economic times are strictly limited. Homeless men drift from ranch to ranch in a tough and lonely journey through life despite the packed bunkhouses and lack of privacy that they endure.

And travelling through this life we first meet George and Lennie, an unlikely pair of men who travel together which is something rarely seen. Lennie is big and strong as an ox but his mental capacity doesn’t match up, and although he’s no saint, dependable George looks out for him as he promised Lennie’s aunt he would back in the village where they grew up. There’s a deep fondness between them, and an interdependence built on the companionship and openness that’s rarely seen in these times.

William Rodell (George) and Kristian Phillips (Lennie)

 

Under these vast skies, most of the men have dreams they’ll never fulfil, living for the next week’s wages and a night on the town with a whisky and a woman. But George and Lennie are different and they have a plan to escape this relentless existence and live for themselves from the fat of the land, sowing their own crops and keeping chickens, and simple Lennie just wants to grow alfalfa for the rabbits. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

In the bunk house, built in a rhythmic choreographed sequence set to a drum and a fiddle live on stage, Candy (played by Dudley Sutton) is a fragile old man, white haired and in the final stage of his working life, drawing sympathy and yet providing hope for the men. We first meet him with an old dog, his long-term companion whom he can’t imagine life without and yet the dog can barely see or walk: to end its miserable life is both the right thing to do and desperately sad at the same time. Here, in this environment where the solitude of no family and no friends breeds a rough meanness, we see for the first time the inner empathy and humanity of this hard group of bunk-house bindlestaffs (hobos) although this is not extended to the black stable-hand who lives alone in a room next to the manure pile.

This is a brilliant emotionally-charged thought-provoking production with a strong cast of whom Kristian Phillips as Lennie and William Rodell as George are an exceptional pairing, and the bond between them is tangible and heart-wrenching. Saoirse-Monica Jackson, who as the nameless wife of the rancher’s disagreeable son provides the right mix of tarty and desperate, and Jonah Russell as Slim were also of particular note.

Of Mice and Men is based on a short novel written in the 1930s by John Steinbeck who was himself a migrant ranch worker. It was first staged in 1937 and has been a stage and screen favourite ever since. It also continues to be a regular school text – if you have secondary school age children, then take them (and some tissues). A disarming tale of the lives, hopes and dreams of the dispossessed, it’s a classic for good reason. The simplicity combined with an emotional depth draws the audience right in to the men’s struggles and leaves you breathless, even if you know what’s coming!

 

- Esther Lafferty

                                                            

Of Mice and Men by John Steinback | A Birmingham Repertory Theatre Production | Presented by The Touring Theatre Consortium Theatre Company | Directed by Roxanna Silbert | At the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 14th May

 

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