Tin Shed Theatre, Chapter Arts
One of the greatest novels ever? Nobel-winning author who begun it as a play before realising its potential for a prose re-draft? Surely anyone looking to perform John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men cannot go wrong, whatever the scale of their operation. But this in itself turns such a task in to an enormous challenge – the obvious response being to put some kind of stamp on it, to add a layer or a touch that makes it your own. In resisting that temptation, Tin Shed Theatre has carried off the challenge with panache. A story so simple is duly allowed to be discovered in all its subtleties.
This is a production that radiates modesty. The roles of Carlson and Curley are (just about successfully) doubled up by the same actor. Stage management and the running of the company are carried out by people also playing major characters. Robert Hopkins in the role of Lennie, arguably the most important persona of the play anyway, is one of the few single-task members of the crew – and his is a brilliant embodiment of the imploring, annoying, endearing and ultimately lethal simpleton. Fumbling hands and with pillows down his front, Hopkins effortlessly slips clear of the shadow cast by John Malkovich years ago.
The other roles are also deftly delivered. George is a perfectly functional everyman, Samuel Griffiths is superb as Candy – drawing humour and belly laughs before quickly turning it all in to gut-wrenching sympathy. Crooks, Curley’s Wife, Slim – all boldly walk the tightrope between resisting excessive modification while still owning the roles. With the assistance of Bob Dylan, a ticking clock, running water sounds, sensitive lighting, simple props and a sufficiently detailed set based around the bunk-house, it takes little time to realise the production is a success.
There remains one pitfall to putting this show on however, which it is hard to escape – and that does indeed lie in the setting. Of Mice and Men, like everything else Steinbeck ever touched, is so about time and place, that it is nearly impossible to rely on the bare bones of its wonderful dialogue without feeling something is missing. And, like avoiding the inkling to alter or adapt too much, it is a problem that I have always thought requires a bit of bravery to overcome.
Realistically, what chance has anyone got of bringing the valley a few miles south of Soledad where ‘the Salinas river runs deep and green’, or the reddening tips of the Gabilan mountains in to any theatre, let alone Chapter Arts during the fourth storm of the 2014 winter? A novel which begins by describing entry to the Promised Land (with some of the most powerful place prose ever written) is able to be equally thorough in its later souring of the picture. George’s decision to lay out under the stars one last night before hitting the next ranch, where he knows the inevitable will probably occur yet again, is a passage that requires us to really be there. And yet again, Tin Shed’s boldness comes in not trying too hard to capture these aspects. Here, the almost immediate bustle of the stage-change as soon as they sleep, a darkening and rapid relighting, quick exit of silhouetted actors and prompt resumption of the script opts to focus on George and Lennie’s arrival at the ranch instead. This is done well. Tin Shed goes after what can be made important on stage, wasting little time with what cannot. Aggression and mistrust, the ever-presence of listening ears, prying eyes (not least those of the sell-out audience) and Curley’s lustful wife, the obvious vulnerability of the central characters’ friendship – these are where the focus lies. And it is no mean feat for actors of any calibre.
Beyond this faith in simplicity though, it is surely Lennie for whom the highest praise must be reserved. He mumbles and stumbles, ponders and worries his way through having a child’s mind and brute grown-up body, stuck in the horrid world of men. His pain is ours, and yet his escape remains his and his alone. With such acting quality assigned to the key role, small quirks in the interpretation of other characters, the odd over-eager drop-off in accent or slightly too brisk change of mood are all minor foibles that only really serve as a warming reminder this is live theatre in South Wales (and damn good live theatre too). Occasional lines clearly not of Steinbeck’s doing are equally tolerable (any maybe even welcome) – and again this is because the torment of the characters’ lives is, essentially, believable. We invest. It will be little in the way of a plot spoiler to note that this ends with a bang, and when the moment we are waiting for arrives it is the crescendo of a journey we have engaged with the whole way along. That promised land has crashed, even though it was never there in the first place.