Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck
Mercury Theatre Company, Colchester
(2005)

Publicity image

Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck's sixth novel, follows the fate of migrant workers George and Lennie over one long weekend in 1930s California. Those aspects that make it an ideal English GCSE text - the short timescale and extensive dialogue - are there because from the beginning Steinbeck saw this as a tale to be performed. His stage play won him the Drama Critics' Circle award, and the first film version followed hot on its heels in 1939. Over half a century later, Gary Sinise's movie, with himself as George and John Malkovitch as Lennie, won the approval of Steinbeck's widow.

This Mercury production of Steinbeck's stage play gets off to a great start with Jeremy Daker's splendid set, a perfect miniature of golden fields, dusty byways and pebbled stream. David Tarkenter brings to the character of George an uncompromising grit and toughness that strips all trace of sentiment from the relationship with his child-like companion, Lennie. This is a man doing what a man has to do, looking after a mentally disabled guy out of plain decency, and finding it hard. Victor Gardener's strong physique contrasts well with Tarkenter's wiry George, and if his performance of Lennie is often reminiscent of Malkovitch, with an occasional facial spasm from Frank Spencer, it is nevertheless powerful, sustained and affecting.

Mercifully, Michael Shaeffer doesn't attempt to give Slim, the jerkline skinner, those 'godlike' qualities Steinbeck emphasises in the novel; his gentle face and quiet manner subtly suggest a man of a different calibre from the others, and Lincoln James also brings a suffering dignity to the role of the black stable buck, Crooks.

During the scene in Crooks' room, a striking lighting effect from Guy Hoare, with characters approaching and speaking from within a narrow ray of light that slices through the darkness, is powerfully suggestive of the isolation of these characters, as are the stippled striations of light in the barn, when Lennie and Curley's wife share their deepest concerns, but are unable to hear or respond to each other.

Perhaps it was simple consideration for the eardrums of his actors that prompted director Nikolai Foster to place Lennie and George at opposite ends of the stage in the final moments of the play. Everything about the scene, though - George's reassuring last description of the dream farmhouse, and even the necessity of a point-blank gunshot to ensure Lennie's instant and painless death - demands that they be close together. From a distance of several yards, the terrified and heartbroken George would surely have missed.

Steinbeck's book and play explore, economically and powerfully, the nature of human isolation and broken dreams. It has as much to say about the America - and the world - of today as it does of the 1930s. This may be a simple tale, but it's one worth telling.

Reviewer: Jill Sharp