Of Mice and Men (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

Of Mice and Men (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, April 23rd)

Dreaming dreams, living lonely lives, and valuing friendship are themes powerfully underlined in a new touring production of one of the greatest American books.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was written as a “novel-play” in 1937, set against a backdrop of the Great Depression, so it’s no surprise that it works so well on stage. However, this Touring Consortium Theatre Company collaboration with Birmingham Repertory Theatre is an edgy and evocative revival that packs a real punch.

It has a real sense of company, with both cast and creatives displaying multi-layered excellence. Even the scene changes (Liz Ascroft’s design manages to be vast, spacious, unconfined and minimal all at once) are a work of careful and captivating choreography.

The work is a set text for schools, so it was great to see so many young people in the audience, it is to be hoped remembering the text but also using their imaginations to go beyond the page, which is in itself a mark of this production, directed by Roxana Silbert.

The story of two migrant farm workers in California, their dream of buying land and their unlikely friendship is played to perfection by the two strong leads. Kristian Phillips is an intense Lennie, a gentle giant but always a tragic figure, while William Rodell is the slight, quick-witted George, a constant supportive guardian to his friend. They deliver at every level and both deserve to become much sought-after by casting directors, with considerable stage presence and incredible maturity and understanding of these classic characters in American literature.

Dudley Sutton, well-known for a string of memorable TV and film roles, gives a moving performance as the ageing Candy, seeking to find security as the passing years add to his sense of loneliness and uselessness, while Dave Fishley as the cynical stable-hand Crooks, Ben Stott as Curley, like a firework waiting to explode, and Jonah Russell as the likeable Slim are especially notable in a generally impressive company.  

There are plenty of stand-out moments that remain in the memory: George and Lennie’s frequent conversations about their aspirations for the future; the stable scene in which Crooks dreams beyond barriers while Lennie focuses on looking after rabbits; and the heart-breaking scene in the barn between Lennie and Curley’s wife (a confident performance by Saoirse-Monica Jackson) to name but a few.

The tour is drawing in local dogs to play the role of Candy’s canine companion – an important one given the way certain actions earlier on mirror those that occur towards the end – and here we saw the calm and totally unphased Siberian Husky Alaska.  

It is a production of honesty and depth, telling a true tale of hopes and dreams being bitterly dashed, yet shamelessly demonstrating the extent to which true friendship will go.

David Guest

Photo: Ellie Kurttz