It was in the spring of 1989 that I fulfilled a long-held ambition to visit California and take a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to San Diego. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get the holiday snaps out, I am only telling you this because one of my stops on the trip was Monterey, the setting for John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row where the whole town seemed to be dedicated to him. I had never read any of Steinbeck’s work as, in the 60s, it just seemed to be the clever lads in the A stream who had any interest in him, so that ruled me out. I was so impressed by Monterey that I regretted my ignorance so when I got home I managed to work through all of his novels and short stories. Had I done it before I went I would have spent time in Salinas and the other areas where his books were set.
Of Mice and Men is one of his shorter novels, I have just dragged it out of the bookcase and it comprises only 110 pages, but every one a gem. It tells the story of two drifters during the Depression who, along with many others, get short-term work on farms doing manual labour. George, played by Tom McCall, is the smart one whereas Lenny, William Young, is still very childlike, and whereas George is of average build, although described as small in the book, Lenny is a huge, strong man. Being naive and not realising his own strength, Lenny keeps getting into trouble, usually for killing small animals which he picks up to stroke, but ends up holding them too tight. They are at Curley’s farm having had to flee from their last job up North in a place called Weed, after Lennie tried stroking a girl’s dress because he liked the red material. She thought he had other ideas and screamed, causing Lennie to panic and break her neck whilst covering her mouth with his huge hand.
Although resigned to their lives as itinerants, George keeps Lennie calm by telling him of the day when they will have enough money to buy a place of their own where they will keep cows, sheep, chickens and, most importantly, rabbits, as they are Lennie’s favourite animals, in fact he is fixated by them.
Lenny, played by William Young, and Tom McCall as George telling him about their future – and the rabbits.
Needless to say, all does not go well when they arrive at the farm. Curley, Riad Richie, takes a dislike to Lennie and they end up in a fight during which Lennie grips Curley’s hand so tight that he breaks several bones. Curley’s new wife, played by Maddie Hill, is an outrageous flirt and comes on to all the men in the bunk room. When she is left alone one day with Lennie, the inevitable happens and tragic consequences ensue. The irony is that George has told Candy, a long-time worker at the farm who has been involved in an accident making him unfit to work, apart from house-keeping, about their plans and he asks if he can join them. He is willing to use his compensation to buy a stake in the project but Lennie and George need to work for another couple of months until they can come up with the balance.
The other characters are; The Boss, played by James Clyde; Slim, the muleskinner, Simon Darwen; Carlson played by Edwin Judge and Whit, Stewart Quigley. Reece Pantry plays a character called Crooks who has a back injury and looks after the mules. He doesn’t live in the bunk house as he is black and segregation was rife in the Thirties, so is confined to the barn, where he keeps his books and seemingly enjoys the solitude.
Left to right. Crooks, Reece Pantry; Curley’s Wife, Maddy Hill; Lennie, William Young; George, Tom McCall, Curley, Riad Richie and Candy, Lee Ravitz.
Whilst I was checking the length of the book I decided to give it a quick re-read and was surprised by the amount of dialogue in it. It was almost a script in itself, although there were some small differences in the description of the characters.
Being a play based on a classic novel, the Director, Iqbal Khan has gone with the usual modus operandi of Leeds Playhouse productions and augmented it with some extra features which have nothing to do with the source material. There are a couple of musical breaks with a Hank Williams lookalike singer to enable the cast to facilitate scenery changes. I can understand that, but there is also a choral song extolling the virtue of trade unionism which has absolutely no place in this piece whatsoever. Although The Boss and Curley, are by no means model employers, they do take care of Crooks and Candy, in fact it is the employers who seemed to need protection from the workers. Whit observed that George and Lennie obviously had come to the farm to work, telling them that because they arrived on Friday they had two days of labour before the day off on Sunday, others arrive on Saturday afternoon, get supper that night, three meals on Sunday, quitting on Monday morning after breakfast! By the way, Hank Williams was from Alabama on the East Coast.
The other thing which didn’t work was a puppet of Candy’s old dog. It was described in the book as having ‘a grizzled, moth-eaten coat’, but this representation was almost skeletal. It was operated by being carried and manipulated by Jake Benson. When done in this style to depict a large animal, such as in War Horse or Lion King, it is easy to ignore the puppeteer after a minute or two, but here the dog was almost obscured by him. The dog’s entrance also upstaged the characters who were talking at the time, thus diverting attention from Lennie, George and Candy, who I had trouble in understanding anyway as he didn’t project his voice as well as the others, seemingly preferring to concentrate on his Walter Brennan accent rather than his diction. All of the other actors were superb, especially Tom McCall, who, as George, had to more or less recite the whole book.
The set was minimalist with a bare stage in the opening scene. I noticed planks of wood leaning against the backdrop which I took to represent trees, I still think they did, but when the action moved to the bunk house, Hank came on with his guitar and the cast used the timbers to assemble the furniture. It was very imaginative and the kind of operation IKEA could only dream about. The bunks were still a bit rickety but I didn’t notice any bits left over as is the norm with flatpack.
I enjoyed the production, despite its superfluous embellishments, but I enjoyed reading the original novel again far more.
Of Mice and Men runs until Saturday, 27th May at Leeds Playhouse. For more details and to book, please go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/event/of-mice-and-men/
All images provided by Leeds Playhouse with photographs by Kris Askey