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The Grapes of Wrath

Based on the novel by John Steinbeck, adapted by Frank Galati
A Chichester Festival Theatre Production
Chichester Festival Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

Both productions in the Festival Theatre concern Oklahoma, but there is no mention of a "beautiful mornin'" or "elephant eye high corn" in this epic tale of man's struggle through life, determined to survive against all odds. In the 'Dust Bowl' of the nineteen thirties the crops have failed yet again and tenant farmers who have worked the land for generations are being forced to leave in the name of progress as mechanisation takes over. The Joad family are only one of thousands who begin the long trek to California hoping for work and enough money to feed and clothe themselves, with perhaps eventually a nice little house they could call home. Not too much to ask - but circumstances and the greed of the rich and powerful are against them, not to mention the faceless inhuman and antagonistic bureaucracy which hounds them at every step.

The twelve-strong family, plus a preacher, take to the road, all piled into a disreputable old jalopy with as many possessions as they can load on top, and this contraption lumbers along on the journey, occasionally accompanied by a 'barber quartet' of salesmen singing of profits they will make by cheating the migrants, and ironical banners display pictures of the "American Dream", and "The World's Highest Standard of Living".

The show is over three hours long and reams of narrative have been condensed to a minimum (I'm very glad I read the book beforehand) but Galati keeps closely to the dialogue and to the spirit of man's indomitable struggle to survive and prosper - although, having said that, Act One did seem excessively long, and I felt that director Jonathan Church could have tightened it up a little and given a bit more attention to the fine potential of the children from the Youth Theatre.

An amazing amount of the now nomadic lives of the Joads has been included with a lot of the action skimmed over very lightly, but the main events stand out in sharp focus, and, although this is truly an ensemble piece, there are some notable individual performances. The stage comes to life when Sorcha Cusack's Ma Joad dispenses her brand of wisdom and pragmatism with authority, and Rebecca Night is as whiny and whingeing as her petulant character Rose of Sharon demands, but the 'milk of human kindness' is not lacking in her at the end. Damian O'Hare is compelling as Tom Joad, not ashamed of doing what a man has to do, with Christopher Timothy as his father keeping the show on the road. Comic elements are introduced with the antics of Grampa and Granma (Richard Kane and Jennifer Hill), Oliver Cotton intrigues as the ex-preacher trying to establish justice, and Tony Bell's Floyd Knowles impresses as he stands up to the strong-arm tactics of the cops.

There are numerous changes of scene, although with very little change in the basic structure of Simon Higlett's imaginative and inventive set which completely captures the difficulty of man's uphill struggle through life, its steeply sloping floor only one of the hazards to overcome. Last night's storm outside and the drumming of rain on the roof is replicated inside with the wettest production I have ever seen. The cast finish up soaked to the skin as the rain splashes down onto the stage and flood waters rise - brilliantly staged!

On reaching the 'golden west' the migrants are treated with contempt and derision, hounded from pillar to post and blamed for all the ills of the community - accused of taking jobs, expecting benefits, and being a drain on resources - does any of this sound familiar? Steinbeck's message is as relevant today as it was eighty years ago, and the show may not be a barrel of laughs it's definitely one not to miss.

Alternating with "Oklahoma!" until Friday, 28th August

Steve Orme reviewed this production in Birmingham

Reviewer: Sheila Connor