Theatre review: Of Mice and Men at The Torch Theatre
Sarah Morgan Jones
As the lights fall on Lennie’s last moments, the audience rises to its feet in a collective movement that feels like a wave of energy behind me, appreciation for a slick portrayal of a timeless classic.
The final production by Peter Doran, as he steps down as Artistic Director of the Torch after 25 years was certainly a good choice for attracting an audience, being a reading list staple and familiar tale of economic hardship in the American mid-west, of human survival in the midst of a Depression.
John Steinbeck’s social commentary tale, now over 80 years old, contains no joy but some glimpses of tenderness between the characters, mostly when they are away from the crowd.
Thematically painful in places, the trope of punching down and punching hard is woven through every scene.
The strong oppress the weak, the weak oppress the weaker, and the weakest do not survive.
From the opening scene false hope is painted on the horizon for George, played by Jams Thomas, and Lennie, played by Mark Henry-Davies, the migrant workers who fled from their previous job after Lennie’s inherent weakness gets them into trouble.
In the pause in a rural idyll next to a pool, they drink deep from their cup of hope and steel themselves for what is to come before plunging into their next and last job together.
Layered with the foreshadowing of their flaws and their fate, this scene sets us up to at once find them an endearing pair and at the same time shines a spotlight on the futility of their ambitions.
As they arrive at the farmstead bunkhouse and meet their fellow workers, the unease grows as the macho misery spreads among them – it’s every man for himself in this hard-bitten world.
The foreman, Slim, played by Chris Bianchi, tries to bring level headedness and chinks of kindness to his workforce, but equally he is a pragmatist and a realist and understands too well the cost of staying alive.
There is little in the way of fraternity between the men and Lennie and George draw curious attention for being in the unusual position of travelling together, as the other men confess in their own ways to loneliness of the itinerate lifestyle.
Old man Candy, played by Dudley Rogers, knows that with his many years and only one hand it is only a matter of time before he becomes surplus to requirements, a reality underlined by the fate of his mangey mutt, charmingly portrayed by Doran’s own dog, Marloe.
Similarly, Crooks, played by Shameer Seepersand, a black man in the workforce, physically damaged by years of hard labour, finds himself alone in his room with only his books for company, and excluded from what scant bonhomie can be found in the bunkhouse, purely by dint of the colour of his skin.
Perhaps loneliest of all is the one woman in the piece, held in such little regard that she doesn’t even have her own name – Curly’s wife, played by Alexandria McCauley.
Curly, played by Gwydion Rhys, the son of the Boss, played by Dion Davies, is an angry young man, socially and sexually insecure, constantly sizing up to the men and suspecting his wife. It is little wonder she is so lonely.
Cast as a ‘tart’ from the off, her desperate attempts to find companionship amongst the men is construed as flirtation and assigned as a justifiable cause for her own death, after having just one trusting conversation with the doomed Lennie.
Pursuit of Happiness
Lennie and George bring each of these people some tantalising hope for the future with their infectious vision for a little farmstead of their own, and the ubiquitous rabbits and alfalfa, but the antagonist of the piece – the state, the economy, the social injustice – dashes those hopes quick and fast.
For then, like now, in many ways, the world that Steinbeck observes is not one in which the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ is truly the right of everyone, it is not a world that is just and fair.
Then, like now, if you are less able, if you are black, if you are female, if you are poor, if you are a man who depends on his bare hands to survive, then the fight is always going to be harder.
Speaking afterwards to two young boys who had watched the performance and were anxiously waiting to make sure that the dog really was an actor, and was actually safe and sound, the younger lad told me his mum covered his eyes on the scary bits.
The older told me, with a surprising elegance of perception, that having read the book and now seen the play he could see that some language had been changed to suit the ears of a modern audience, but that he ‘still thought it really very good.’
For the students coming to the school matinees throughout the run, there is no doubt that the solid performances and the set and lighting, designed by long-time Torch collaborators Sean Crowley and Ceri James, along with the atmospheric soundtrack and the heart winning appearance of Marloe, will very much bring the dustbowl classic alive in the classroom, giving them plenty to debate and write about.
For the older audience who maybe studied the piece in their youth, there will be nothing here to disappoint.
Of Mice and Men directed by Peter Doran, runs at The Torch Theatre until 22 October and tickets can be bought here.
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