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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Of Mice and Men
by Lizzie Loveridge

Jesus you feel free when you ain't got a job . . . if you ain't hungry.
--- George
Of Mice and Men
Matthew Kelly as Lennie and George Costigan as George
(Photo: Robert Day)
This adaptation of John Steinbeck's groundbreaking novel Of Mice and Men would not be doing the theatrical rounds were it not for the book's inclusion in the examination syllabus for 16 year olds. Some of the interest will be sympathetic because the play's popular star Matthew Kelly gained a certain amount of unjustifiable notoriety earlier this year when he was arrested and later completely cleared on a charge of sexual offences. Whatever your motives are for seeing Birmingham Repertory Theatre's production of Of Mice and Men, you will come away knowing that this is one of the best dramatic adaptations of a famously gritty novel. I was reminded visually of Birmingham Repertory Theatre's production of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll, so good, that it was invited to play at the National Theatre and later transferred to the West End.

The story is well known and its core narrative endures, the responsibility for caring for an adult who is disabled and too innocent, too na´ve to cope alone and the resulting tragedy when that burden proves too onerous. Set in the desperate days of scraping a living from the land in Northern California in the 1930s, we are reminded of how difficult mere existence is for many. The dreams of these casual labourers are the dreams of the characters in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, their chances of fulfilment just as improbable. The only drawback of dramatising the novel is that so much of the book is narrative and this results in a first half mostly of long descriptive dialogue rather than dramatic event. But the second half has considerably more dramatic turn and tragedy.

The staging and lighting are of the very best. The opening scene quite takes one's breath away. Outlined against the smoky, red lit sky, sheaves of barley ranked in lines, a stream running along the stage, the shadowy figures of George (George Costigan) and Lennie (Matthew Kelly) make their entrance to the sound of Blue grass folk music. The bunkhouse is all slatted wood walls, dividing the light into shafts, illuminating the beds in this bare dormitory for the farm workers. A third magnificent set, the barn with its straw bales and corrugated iron must make this production in the running for an award for its recreation of rural atmosphere.

George Costigan gives a remarkable performance as George the man who has the burden of looking after Lennie. It isn't just that Lennie is simple but that his size and strength make him a danger both to the mice he so desperately wants to pet and to other people. Costigan's performance is special because of his weary blend of exasperation and compassion. Matthew Kelly gives an interesting portrait of the childlike Lennie. Very tall and ungainly, a round hat pulled down over his ears, with his wrists poking out from his shirt cuffs, he holds his hands with fingers stiff and splayed. Lennie is not so innocent that he cannot manipulate George, wheedling for what he wants. George is forced to agree because Lennie threatens to go and live in a cave. Kelly speaks his part with the voice of a child.

There are sterling ensemble performances from those involved on the farm as hirers or the hired including Rachel Kavanaugh's delightful dog Josie (last seen in Two Gentlemen of Verona at Regent's Park). Tyrone Huggins is memorable as the African American worker who is at first wary of Lennie. When Candy (David Sterne) waits to hear the gunfire as his dog is shot, the tension is all, a clock ticks persistently and the wait seems interminable. The accents are occasionally more Southern than rural Californian but passable.

This adaptation really works, is visually stellar and makes a welcome seven week stay in the West End.
Of Mice and Men
Written by John Steinbeck
Directed by Jonathan Church

Starring: Matthew Kelly, George Costigan
With: David Sterne, Nick Stringer, John Flitcroft, Joanne Mosley, Julian Protheroe, Neil Phillips, Tom Silburn, Tyrone Huggins, Andy Chaplin, Philip Bulcock
Designer: Simon Higlett
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Music: John Tams
Running time: Two and a half hours with one interval
Box Office: 0870 164 8787
Booking to 6th December 2003.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd October 2003 Performance at the Savoy Theatre, The Strand, London WC2 (Tube: Charing Cross)
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