Saturday, 13th May 2023 at Leeds Playhouse
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, once a GCSE text staple (remember the spoilers helpfully left behind in the margins by the outgoing Year 11 students?), is currently finishing up its tour at Leeds Playhouse. Following an unlikely pairing of itinerant workers during the Great Depression, this is a story of hope and resilience but also discrimination, racism and loss. Iqbal Khan’s production remains faithful to Steinbeck’s original, with some important updates for a 2023 audience.
When George (Tom McCall) and Lennie (William Young) arrive to the ranch, they’re on the run from a minor hiccup in the last place and eager to stay out of trouble in the new place. George is the brains of the operation, reminding everyone that Lennie “ain’t bright” but can work like ten men combined. Theirs is an affectionate relationship in which the impulsive, animal loving Lennie is cared for by George as a father figure but also like an older brother tired of being forced to take care of his sibling. McCall offers great range here: resentful and irritated at times but always fiercely protective and often very gentle. In turn, as Lennie, Young provides a fitting counterpart: forever looking to George for guidance, adopting his mannerisms and trying to fit in as best he can.
The ranch seems promising to begin with. The guys are nice enough; the boss is alright; the place looks fine. A dream held by our duo is adopted by others, but dreams can be dashed as easily as they’re built. While most are no bother, trouble arrives in the shape of Curley’s Wife (Mandy Hill), who is labelled a “tart” and a “tramp” but declares herself lonely and eager to simply talk to someone – anyone but her insufferable and controlling husband Curley (Riad Richie) it seems. Hill strikes all the right notes as the misunderstood youngster who married too soon and realised the mistake too late, while Richie blazes around the place as Exhibit A in her trial of loneliness.
Our duo are welcomed well enough by Candy (Lee Ravitz) – the wise elder of the place who sees everything – and it’s a similar story with the other men on the ranch (James Clyde as the boss; Simon Darren as Slim; Edward Judge as Carlson; and Stuart Quigley as Whit). Lengthy, often quite static scenes of dialogue are broken up at intervals with snapshots of rising tensions and action – all serving to highlight the hollowness of the labouring life and the inevitable frictions in close proximity. The role of Crooks (Reece Pantry) is pared back a little here, with the casual racism and animosity towards him as shown in the novel omitted from conversations about him in favour of giving real value and weight to his exchanges with Lennie: highlighting two individuals who, when left to their own devices, find a light and cross a boundary set by others.
Khan also shakes things up a bit with some puppetry and scene transitions which bring in music and song (Composer and sound designer: Elizabeth Purnell) performed by the ensemble – a welcome addition and good respite from those lengthy scenes of dialogue. Puppet designer, director and maker Michael Crouch gets top marks from me, as does puppeteer Jake Benson, who bring to life Candy’s old dog with all the charm and pup cuteness required to secure sympathy later. Other visuals of note include Ciarán Bagnall’s clever set, which conjures a bunkhouse from fence posts and features an imposing roof capable of shifting position.
This is a tricky story to stage I think as it relies so heavily on discussions in enclosed spaces, but Khan’s production delivers on all the key strengths of Steinbeck’s novel and manages the transition to modern audiences with sensitivity and a skilful bringing together of old and new.
Of Mice and Men is at Leeds Playhouse until May 27th 2023 – you can find more information and tickets here.
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