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The Grapes of Wrath review

Steinbecks commentary on social mobility hits its message.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is revived with a contemporary urgency this month in a co-production from Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Nottingham Playhouse, Royal & Derngate Northampton and West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Based on the famous 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath is set against the Great Depression and charts the agonising journey of a family escaping from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to the fertile land of California. It is a complex story of dignity, wealth and mobility and exists as a prescient critique on the nature of human coexistence.

Frank Galati’s colourful adaptation runs just over two-and-a half-hours, efficiently distilling Steinbeck’s wandering masterpiece into a forceful, compelling drama. Dialogue is naturalistic and conversational with a documentary-like realism, characterising a cast of over a dozen with texture and depth. The journey itself is vividly illustrated in the writing, ensuring a strong sense of space, time and place is evoked through dialogue alone.

Simple and effective staging in The Grapes of Wrath. Photograph by Marc Brenner.

Abbey Wright directs with urgency and an imaginative use of simplistic sets; a pair of moving gauzed platforms provide interior spaces and present shade and height. A raised area also doubles as staging for a band, often underscoring the piece with drums, strings and bass. Matt Regan’s musical direction provides a lilting sense of movement and montage to the play, bridging the family’s journey with an almost filmic soundtrack befitting counterculture cinema such as Easy Rider.

Performances are wide-ranging. Standouts include Brendan Charleson as weathered preacher Casey. Andre Squire is particularly robust and engaging as Tom. The crucial role of Ma – the embodiment of motherly love – is perfectly captured by Julia Swift in a heartbreaking study of resilient bravery and concealed fragility. Some accents wander away from a Southern Central drawl, but on the whole the vocal landscape is convincing.

Brendan Charleson as Casey & Andre Squire as Tom. Photograph: Marc Brenner.

The production also includes a cast of community performers, extending the scope with a contemporary feel. Costumed in late 20th Century designs which include tracksuits and shellsuits, the evocation of Eastern block immigration is unsubtly evident. In a disconcerting piece of direction, a member of the ensemble spends a good quarter of an hour staring directly into the audience with a damning curiosity for her passive observers. It is a questioning look which asks the audience if they recognise similarities in the play to the sociopolitical conflict of the present day.

A show which sets out to alert its audience with flashes of unexpected nudity and a graphic, uncensored depiction of a stillbirth, The Grapes of Wrath is a bold and inventive take on a very important story. Whilst it doesn’t all work perfectly, the intention to bring a story from the past into a potent present is interesting and inquiring. Exploring themes of social mobility, fertility and the cycle of life, The Grapes of Wrath remains a timeless study which is as alarming and damning today as it was eighty years ago and this version is well-deserving of its celebrated title.

Cast: Brendan Charleson, Julia Swift, Andre Squire, Jim Kitson, Ben Bland, Daniel Booroff, Charlie Folorunsho, Shiv Jalota, Molly Logan, Pamela Merrick, Harry Napier, Alex Newland, Heronimo Sehmi. Director: Abbey Wright Writer: John Steinbeck adapted by Frank Galati Theatre: West Yorkshire Playhouse Duration: 205 minutes Dates: Wednesday 24th May – Saturday 10th June 2017.

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