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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Of Mice and Men
Savoy Theatre, Autumn 2003; Old Vic Spring 2004

[Scroll down for our re-review at the Old Vic]

This is a powerful and moving human drama, and the only small reservation I must make in recommending it is that it flirts openly with a kind of sentimentality that may not be to everyone's taste. But if you can move past that barrier, it should be a thoroughly satisfying experience.

John Steinbeck's 1937 novel is an acknowledged American classic, its tale of two itinerant farm workers, one an innocent mentally-deficient giant and the other his protector, encapsulating the almost tragic sense of fated failure that was part of the experience of the Great Depression. Steinbeck's own dramatisation of the novel is here directed by Jonathan Church in a sensitive, atmospheric production that captures both the tragedy of the two men and the larger social resonances.

In a world measured out by short-term labouring jobs and small monthly paychecks usually spent in a weekend of drunkenness, George (George Costigan) and Lennie (Matthew Kelly) are carried by the dream of a place of their own, a small farm where they can be their own bosses and the childlike Lennie can raise rabbits.

So clear is this dream in their minds that Steinbeck lures us into believing that it may be possible, especially when another farm hand with sizeable savings joins them. But it is just a dream, and he makes its destruction as inevitable as it is sad.

Matthew Kelly, best known as the amiable presenter of TV's Stars in Their Eyes, proves himself a skilled and powerful actor as the doomed Lennie, though his performance takes a little getting used to. He has unfortunately been directed (or allowed) to represent Lennie's feeblemindedness with a batch of twitches, tics and head-rollings that seem like purely external signifying.

But if you look through these actor's gimmicks, you will see a fully understood and internalised characterisation beneath them, a sense of a man who can just barely hang on to the concepts of two and two, but not how they might go together. (He knows that he has handled a puppy roughly, and that it is dead, and that he will be in trouble, but he can't make any connections among the three thoughts.) A stronger or wiser director might have allowed Kelly all those tics and twitches during rehearsal and then guided him to tone them down, but that is really the only criticism I can make of Jonathan Church.

George Costigan's role and performance match Kelly's in sensitivity and exceed them in subtlety, as he successfully plays the strong one of the pair, always guiding and protecting his friend, while at the same time letting us see how very much he needs the companionship and how devastatingly alone he will be without it.

And one of the major strengths of the production is the way it shows that this loneliness and need for a dream is part of the lives of all the other characters we meet, such as John Flitcroft's old hand who races to throw in his life's savings just to be included in the two men's plans, or Tyrone Huggins' discriminated-against black labourer who begs to be allowed to work for free on their dream farm.

In an inspired piece of casting and acting, the farmer's wife whose flirting with the men precipitates the tragedy is played by Joanne Moseley not as a villainous vamp but as a somewhat lumpish and dim country girl, as innocently lonely as the others, her head also filled with impossible romantic dreams and her immediate needs extending no further than an occasional friendly conversation.

To a certain kind of jaded cynic, the play, like the novel before it, comes perilously close to cheap emotional manipulation, particularly in the character of Lennie. It is very much to this production's credit that you have to be determinedly cynical not to be caught up in the emotional and psychological truth of Steinbeck's tragic vision.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

February 2004: Let me begin this re-review with a bit of my original :

John Steinbeck's 1937 novel is an acknowledged American classic, its tale of two itinerant farm workers, one an innocent mentally-deficient giant and the other his protector, encapsulating the almost tragic sense of fated failure that was part of the experience of the Great Depression.

Steinbeck's own dramatisation of the novel is here directed by Jonathan Church in a sensitive, atmospheric production that captures both the tragedy of the two men and the larger social resonances.

After a limited run at the Savoy last autumn, this production originally from the Birmingham Rep has returned with an almost entirely new cast. And while some of the larger emotional resonances I mentioned have been muted with the changes, it remains a strong and moving drama.

Perhaps because the new cast have not yet blended into an ensemble, the play is now dominated by the central drama,  with the two new leads bringing new colours to their characters. (Those unfamiliar with the story might want to jump down to the summary in the original review)

As the powerful but weak-brained Lennie, Joe McGann eliminates the tics and twitches that dominated Matthew Kelly's performance, rather giving the impression of a rather bright small child in the giant's body, lacking not so much in intellect as in comprehension and moral sense.

Andrew Schofield gives his protector George a feistiness and wiry energy that stress how ill-equipped his character is for the burden he has taken on, and therefore how quietly heroic he is for committing himself to it.

Julian Protheroe, one of the few holdovers from the earlier cast, gives the farmhand Slim the quiet strength of a natural leader; and Sean Baker and Oscar James, as fellow workers who get caught up in George and Lennie's dream of a place of their own, are most effective at expanding the play's portrait of an era. But Sandra Reinton, by playing the one woman on the farm as the shallow floozie the men imagine her to be, rather than as the lost soul Joanne Moseley found in her last year, keeps that character from contributing to a broader sense of tragedy.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Of Mice and Men - Savoy / Old Vic 2003