Of Mice And Men

John Steinbeck

Octagon Theatre, Bolton

From 17 January 2013 to 16 February 2013

Review by David Chadderton

Not everyone risked the trek to Bolton in the snow for the Octagon's opening production of the year, but those who did saw director David Thacker back on his home territory of early- to mid-twentieth century American drama.

This isn't Miller or even Tennessee Williams, though; in Of Mice And Men, Steinbeck paints a vivid picture of the wide open spaces in the west of America during the depression, where men roam vast expanses of nothingness alone to find work; where friendships are short-term and volatile and relationships even shorter and usually paid for.

Two such men have formed a rare long-term partnership: George is the bright one who looks after them both and gets them out of trouble; gentle giant Lennie has the mind of a child and the strength of two or three men, and is usually the cause of the trouble from which George has to extricate them. They arrive at a farm to begin work, but the boss's son Curley is always looking to pick a fight with someone and Curley's Wife (this is the only name by which she is ever known) is always wandering around chatting to the men. Trouble is inevitable from the start.

Steinbeck's tight plotting of the story is remarkable: nothing is wasted and everything has a purpose. Apparently peripheral events, such as Lenny accidentally killing the mouse and the issue over Candy's old dog, prefigure beautifully much greater events, which I won't reveal, later in the play. The language and the slow pace of the dialogue conjure up the heat and the emptiness of the mid-west.

Thacker's production is played in-the-round, which emphasises the closeness and intensity of the scenes in the bunkhouse, but the outdoor scenes feel a little cramped instead of giving an impression of the smallness of the men in the vast, open plains, which is not helped by the pace of the opening scene, which seems a little rushed. Ciaran Bagnall's set design is all-wood, with some of the floorboards removable to create a stream winding through the theatre for the outdoor scenes.

There is a cast of ten humans plus Berry as Candy's dog—Berry plays the character as rather more lively than he is described in the script and even ad-libbed at one point on press night. There are some very strong actors in relatively small roles, many Octagon regulars, such as John Branwell as the Boss, Colin Connor as Carlson, Patrick Poletti as Slim, Tristan Brooke as Curley and Eamonn Riley as Whit.

Another Octagon regular David Fleeshman is in the slightly larger role of Candy, and Fiona Hampton, who played a lead role recently with Fleeshman in Lighthearted Intercourse, returns to the Octagon in the only female part of Curley's Wife. Marc Small plays black farmhand Crooks as rather nervous and overwrought.

In the two lead roles, Kieran Hill is fine as Lennie, but it is all held together by a strong and very laid-back performance by Andrew Langtree—who gave a great performance in Ghost the Musical when it visited Manchester pre-West End—as George.

There are problems with the pacing, which I am sure will improve during the run. The very long first half seems to fly by, but the much shorter second act drags a little, particularly towards the end when, instead of building up the tension and the emotion to its terrible climax, it struggles to hold the audience's attention. We should have all have been leaving in floods of tears, instead of looking shocked that the play had ended so suddenly.

As a whole, this is a brilliant piece of writing with a very strong cast and a pretty decent opening to the year for the Octagon.