OF MICE AND MEN, Birmingham representative

Review: OF MICE AND MEN, Birmingham RepJohn Steinbeck’s 1937 novel, set in California during the Great Depression, may be a period piece, but the parallels to life in the UK today are unmistakable. Addressing issues of poverty, displacement, prejudice and the desperation for independence, of mice and men timely returns to the Birmingham Rep stages in this new production directed by Iqbal Khan.

Immigrant farmworkers George and Lennie dream of buying a plot of land, with a room of their own, land and animals to care for, and no boss to answer to. It’s a simple dream, but one that has always seemed out of reach. When they start a new job on the farm and meet an elderly worker named Candy, an opportunity to fulfill their dream presents itself and hopes rise, but as the play’s title reminds us, the best plans often go awry.

Rep stage is big but ciarán Bagnall’s elegant suite of wood effects encloses the space, using sets of canted beams to represent barracks, barns, and ultimately an external landscape that may be far-reaching but feels cramped and claustrophobic. Bagnall’s lighting is equally effective, with the optimistic oranges of sunset giving way to the cool blues of night. The harsh shadows of the beams cut lines resembling prison bars in even the hottest scenes, a constant reminder of the limitations of the time for men like George and Lennie.

George played by Tom McCall is the lynchpin of the show, perfectly portraying the simmering anger and frustration of a man whose life has been a series of disappointments. His determination to protect Lennie and keep him out of trouble is his main driving force, and the affection between the two is conveyed subtly but sweetly through the physical movements of the actors. Opposite him, William Young gives a moving performance as Lennie, whom George describes as “like a child with no harm in him, except that he’s strong.” Young, who has complex learning difficulties, brings depth and pathos to Lennie, as well as humor and lightness. This production features several talented actors with disabilities, which is a joy to watch.

Lee Ravitz is completely believable as Candy, though unfortunately many of her lines are hard to understand. Maddy Hill also makes an impact as the wife of Curley, the partner of the boss’s son, who is abandoned by her husband and ostracized by the workers. It’s a relief to see the character come across as likeable here rather than simply seeking attention or having too much sex, as Steinbeck’s portrayal of women can certainly be problematic.

The work as a whole can be hard to watch, with its racist, misogynistic, and ableist language. It also has pacing issues, and at two hours and 45 minutes long, it sometimes feels like every word of the novel has been preserved here, to the detriment of the work. Conversations are rambling and circular, and ideas are repeated frequently, while instead some important moments are underplayed and given no respite. But while the road to the end may be long, it’s certainly worth getting there, and McCall and Young shine in the heartbreaking final scene.

Of Mice and Men will be at Birmingham Rep until April 8th and then will be on tour

photo credit: Ciarán Bagnall


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