Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Cheltenham Everyman, Tuesday, February 23-Saturday, February 27

Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Curley's wife), and Kristian Phillips (Lennie) in Of Mice and Men

Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Curley's wife), and Kristian Phillips (Lennie) in Of Mice and Men - Credit: Archant

Katie Jarvis reviews a touring production of John Steinbeck’s classic tale of hardship and poverty, set in America during the Great Depression

Dudley Sutton (Candy) in Of Mice and Men

Dudley Sutton (Candy) in Of Mice and Men - Credit: Archant

Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love, John Steinbeck.

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Oh my gosh. There’s something humbling and dreadful and guilt-inducing about watching a period piece portraying hardship and poverty. Of seeing, on stage, the effects of the Great Depression unfold; 15 million Americans unemployed (a quarter of the workforce, says the programme in front of me); a time when an empty pocket turned inside-out became known as a Hoover flag in honour of President Herbert Hoover, who declared the recession “a passing incident in our national lives”. (Which is true: but there’s the passing of a snail; and there’s the passing of a jetliner.)

And – dare I say it – there’s something fascinating (smug-making, almost), about watching hardship and poverty unfold on stage when you live in an age where the trick is to avoid food not starvation. Something that, as your children tell you they hate fish fingers, makes you think atavistically: of the mothers far back in your family line, who went to bed weeping tiredly feeble tears of rage, wondering how to god they would feed their empty kids the next day.

Yet despite Of Mice and Men portraying poverty and hardship on a dustbowl stage, riven with a crack; a fault-line that runs through every scene; through every act… Despite that, Of Mice and Men is about a different sort of hardship. About loneliness and loyalty; about physical strength and mental weakness; about the values society imposes, instead of the gifts it should look for; about the powerlessness of all-but-a-handful of individuals.

When John Steinbeck picked up a pen to write his novella back in the 1930s, it was with personal knowledge of what it meant to be a bindle stick; an itinerant worker whose meagre possessions would fit into a kerchief tied to the end of a foraged piece of wood. Indeed, it seems, he was more at home in a world of simple dreams than the nightmare of fame and recognition into which his literary success propelled him.

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His straight-to-the-heart stories are made-for-stage. In fact, when he published Of Mice and Men as a novella, he described it, in a letter, as “a tricky little thing designed to teach me to write for the theatre”.

So we open the play with George and Lennie (exquisitely played by William Rodell and Kristian Phillips); and we begin almost at once to see what Steinbeck meant, when he wrote:

Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.

George is bright, but slight compared to Lennie. Big Lennie is slow but sure. Big Lennie forgets; forgets not to talk when George is negotiating work for them both; forgets that he shouldn’t pick up dead mice (“I was just petting it with my thumb as we walked along”); forgets that society judges a big strong man as useful for lugging sacks of barley but dangerous outside of the fields. That society is scared of the strength it wants to exploit.

But George sticks by Lennie. Lennie isn’t smart. Lennie likes things in life that are as simple as he is: furry rabbits; and ketchup with beans. And soon you begin to realise that happiness isn’t having someone rich and powerful as a friend; it’s having a friend. That happiness is isn’t having more money than you could ever use and more food than you can eat. Happiness is having enough.

“You feel free when you ain’t got a job and you ain’t hungry.”

Of course, this is the Depression; of course, this is Steinbeck; of course, things aren’t going to stay simple or happy for long.

But what a ride through emotions this was, driven by a cast that knew exactly what it was doing: conjuring up 1930s America, with its racism and barbarities that turned honest men into bewildered beasts. Dudley Sutton as Candy, aging, enfeebled, desperate; Dave Fishley as Crooks, the black man: “They say I stink; all of you stink to me”; Saoirse-Monica Jackson as Curley’s wife, bored, lonely, flirty, longing to be in the movies.

So many caricatures; tin men, to whom Steinbeck gave a heart.

This is a marvellous story, wonderfully brought to the stage (though I remained distractedly mesmerised by the door in the middle of the landscape scenery. What was that all about? Hmm?).

This production is entertaining; it’s desperately sad. And it reminds us that beautiful dreams can be a hutchful of rabbits and a bag of alfalfa to feed them.

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The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk

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