Writer: John Steinbeck
Director: Douglas Rintoul
Reviewer: Carol Evans
In Of Mice and Men, the Watermill has delivered a gritty drama that gives a powerful insight into the lonely and hopeless existence of common workpeople trying to eke out a living during the Great Depression.
Set in 1930s America, its main focus is the unlikely but deep friendship between George and Lennie, two itinerant farmhands working their way round ranches in California. Their dream is to make enough money so that one day they can buy their own place where they can be their own masters, live off the fat of the land and where Lennie can tend rabbits.
George is quick-witted, slim and wiry while Lennie is a large, lumbering simple-minded manchild with a doglike, unconditional devotion to his mentor George, who must continually keep on his toes to make sure Lennie keeps out of trouble.
And, indeed, trouble is never far away, the problem being that gentle-giant Lennie does not realise his own strength with the result that the simplest of touches – and Lennie likes to pet anything that’s soft – can end in disaster. When we first meet him, Lennie has a mouse in his pocket, dead because his petting was too rough. We learn too that the pair had to make a quick getaway from their last workplace because of Lennie’s forceful handiwork.
Using a minimal set of corrugated iron panelling and stark brick wall, plus good use of sound, the Watermill team has evoked perfectly the mood of those straitened times – and once again demonstrating that on this theatre’s tiny stage, little really can be more.
The production is strong on atmosphere, with a slow build-up of simmering tension from a cast of characters that are convincing and thoroughly believable.
Thomas Padden is very good indeed as long-suffering but caring George, his patience often wearing thin as he looks out for childlike Lennie, played with wonderful use of body language by David Ganly. Ingenuous and lacking understanding, Lennie’s words when on arriving at the ranch, ‘It’s mean here’ turn out to be chillingly prophetic.
The other ranch hands are excellent too. Johnson Willis is convincing as old man Candy who, after letting his aged, arthritic dog be shot by a workmate, eagerly throws in his lot to join with George and Lennie in their dream.
Good performance from Tom Berish as the belligerent, suspicious and nasty-piece-of-work boss’s son Curley who, rather creepily, wears a glove filled with Vaseline to ‘keep his hand soft’ for his new wife. Jeff Alexander plays Crooks, the gentle stable buck who’s not allowed to bunk in with the other guys because he’s black. And Ian Porter, is excellent as Slim, the trustworthy and respected skinner who becomes the voice of reason at the final tragic denouement. Strong support too from Carl Patrick and Nicholas Hart.
The themes of loneliness and the importance of friendship are central to this thought-provoking play with each character locked into some degree of isolation. As George explains to Lennie: “Guys like us who work on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world. They don’t belong no place. With us, it ain’t like that. We got somebody to talk to… that gives a damn about us.”
And there are many touching moments, particularly the two-hander between Lennie and Curley’s unnamed wife (beautifully played by Siobhan O’Kelly) labelled a tart but who really only craves companionship.
The final tragic events, when they come, are as shocking for those who already know the play’s ending as they will be for those seeing it for the first time. Highly recommended.
Runs until 16 June 2012