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Of Mice and Men review

John Steinbeck’s controversial novella is adapted for stage at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Rehearsal shot of Henry Pettigrew as George. Photographer: Jonathan Keenan.

Steinbeck’s popular novella Of Mice and Men has been boldly adapted for the new season at West Yorkshire Playhouse. A powerful and enduring piece, the show promises to theatrically re-imagine one of the most studied texts in the English Literature curriculum.

Of Mice and Men signifies Mark Rosenblatt’s directorial debut as new Associate Director of the Playhouse. His direction has an immediate freshness and innovative simplicity. Act I is primarily played downstage with simple dressings and has a strong studio theatre feel, whilst Act II opens up broader vistas, exploiting the impressive depth of the Quarry Theatre. Rosenblatt’s visualisation, thanks to superb production design by Max Jones, expands in scale and story, partnered with the dramatic tensions of the play.  A cloud-like spectacle of tungsten bulbs glow and ebb throughout the piece, counterpointing anxieties, whilst simply animated vistas – including a lazily turning windmill – provide a cinematic patina on stage.

The production boasts a highly original score by Heather Christian. Utilising a minimal ensemble, Christian provides lilting vocals which are both haunting and evocative of forgotten primal urges. There are some unconventional decisions made here, with vocal underscores which often wail and weep behind dramatic dialogue, providing scenes with an animalistic and ritualistic tone. The marriage is highly effective, resonant and beautiful in its simplicity of execution.

Cornelius Booth, Henry Pettigrew and Dyfrig Morris. Photograper: Jonathan Keenan.

Cornelius Booth, Henry Pettigrew and Dyfrig Morris. Photograper: Jonathan Keenan.

There is a strong drive to maintain realism in the performances. Dyfrig Morris is definitive as Lennie, the simple-minded gentle giant. Sympathetically presented with a lightness of humour which is funny without becoming broad, Morris transmits a physicality which is tangibly untapped and explosive. His imposing stature in scenes of violence makes for uncomfortable and challenging viewing, whilst his musings remain endearingly childlike. Henry Pettigrew is agreeably paired with Morris and exerts a passionate and driven performance as George Milton. The character’s inner struggles are delicately painted, escalating to a painful turmoil which is expertly exposed in the show’s closing moments. The supporting cast are generally excellent with Johnson Willis’ Candy shining brightly, evoking warmth and aspiration in the face of old age.

Imaginative ideas are propagated throughout Of Mice and Men. There is an outstanding example of puppetry in the form of an arthritic dog, which is little more than a shamble of rags, but its abstract form and lifelike movements steal every scene. In a refreshing break from the traditional, there is also a surreal episode involving a man-sized rabbit who stalks a scene. Crosscut between a dramatic monologue, the vision is both darkly comic yet grotesquely creepy, foreshadowing events like a grim reaper in his own barley field.

Of Mice and Men is a meticulous theatrical reworking of a much loved and deeply examined text. At a little over two-hours it rips along with verve and will actively engage and inspire students of all ages. It is the ideal introduction to one of the finest stories of the modern age, with its greatest triumph residing in its ability to feel wholly fresh and unpredictable.

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