As the audience take to their seats on a wet and windy autumn evening in Pembrokeshire, we join the players of Of Mice And Men in media res, playing tack and shooting the breeze in the bunkhouse while plaintive bluegrass plays from the auditorium’s sound system – effectively a ‘pre-credits sequence’ prior to cross-fading through a lighting and scenery transition to our luckless protagonists, George and Lenny, looking out across the endless plains of fortune as they begin their journey… It’s a canny way of opening this production of John Steinbeck’s American classic, set in dry, dusty, Depression-era California, a scene-setting approach that blends the immediacy of a tangible theatre setting (you can almost feel the arid heat) with cinematic visual shorthand – one of the bravura touches that will be missed once Torch Theatre Company artistic director Peter Doran steps down at the end of this season.
For this production of the Steinbeck masterpiece is both a celebration and a curtain call, marking the Torch Theatre’s 45th anniversary and the venue’s last production under Doran’s watchful gaze in 25 years. As with the venue’s previous anniversary show – 2017’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – it’s another ambitious production from the small theatre that dares to dream big by taking on another classic of twentieth-century American literature, fronted by a diverse band of actors who are a healthy mix of accomplished Company regulars (albeit not as you’ve seen them before!) and fresh new talent making their Torch debut. I feel that this embodies the Torch’s ethos, drawing from its capable alumni (we welcome back Dudley Rogers, Dion Davies, Gwydion Rhys, Jâms Thomas and one Marloe Doran) while also introducing a new generation of acting talent.
In the latter category, Canadian actress and recent acting graduate from the RWCMD Alexandria McCauley makes her professional debut giving a sizzling performance as Curly’s Wife, former Torch Youth Theatre member Samuel Freeman who brings zip and energy to the show as fresh-faced junior farmhand Whit, and Shameer Seepersand who plays mule-skinner Crooks, profoundly conveying the bitterness and isolation the character feels as the only black man on the ranch.
Although not as storied as Ken Kesey’s tale of lunatics taking over the asylum, Of Mice and Men has been for many years a set text in school curriculums and was brought to the big screen in a 1993 film adaptation starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. But the two adaptations share a few similarities such as their shedding light on the underside of the American dream and being tragic tales of hope and despair that could only fail to move the hardest of hearts. It’s fair to say that when Of Mice And Men reaches its climactic finale, you’ve been put through the emotional wringer, not least because this production skilfully brings out the moments in the story that cast a long, foreboding shadow of tragic inevitability as the mood darkens throughout its second half where we bear witness to not only the beauty but also the fragility of hopes and dreams in this desolate landscape, whether it’s Lenny and George’s repeated idyllic fairy-tale of “livin’ off the fat of the land” or Curly’s Wife fantasies of fame and fortune. I was put in mind of, of all things, John Cleese’s resonant cry in ‘80s comedy Clockwise, “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”
Our two leads, the hard-bitten George (Jâms Thomas, Keeping Faith) and gentle giant Lennie (Mark Henry-Davies, Itopia) represent one iteration of one of the timeless character dualisms of modern comedy and drama; the mismatched couple trapped in a claustrophobic, co-dependent relationship borne of circumstance rather than by choice, whether it’s Samuel Beckett’s vagrant philosopher Vladimir and Estragon or Harold Pinter’s Mick and Davies in the Theatre of the Absurd, or the bleak world of Britcom be it Steptoe and Son’s Harold and Albert, Porridge cellmates Fletch and Godber or Richie and Eddie in Bottom. And there are indeed laughs to be had in this night-and-day pairing, with both actors tapping into the duo’s hidden depths when they are able to let their guards down.
The cast as a whole work hard in drawing out the nuances behind the characters’ tough exteriors as the play progresses and we are immersed into the microcosmic world of Curly’s ranch. Some characters are more well-drawn than others, but that’s a product of Steinbeck’s text rather than a criticism of the play and its players; as the two characters uppermost in the hierarchy (The Boss, played by Dion Davies, and Curly, Gwydion Rhys) are painted in broad strokes as Steinbeck was clearly more sympathetic towards the ‘underdog’ characters and their inner lives, but it was fascinating to see Dion out of his panto frock (so to speak) and Gwydion Rhys tackle a role so distinct from his previous Torch credits as the young, slain WW1 soldier in The Wood and the naïve Alan Dangle in One Man Two Guvnors (both 2018).
As previously mentioned, Shameer as Crooks adeptly puts across how it feels to be a victim of endemic racism in a memorable scene that starts with hostility but evolves organically into a short- lived moment of cameraderie; Dudley Rogers as the elderly, infirm and gentle Candy brings pathos aplenty to the role, even when lying prone and silent after Carlson (Dion Davies on double duties!) cruelly contrives to have Candy’s canine companion put ‘out of his misery’ in a scene of significant foreshadowing. Bristol-based actor Chris Bianchi also does fine work as the other, side-lined older farmhand Slim, and from where I was sitting his hangdog countenance called to mind the presence of the recently departed American character actor Philip Baker Hall.
In terms of the journey from page to play, perhaps the most challenging character to develop is Curly’s Wife, so it’s a great vote of casting confidence from Doran that the role is essayed by newcomer Alexandria McCauley. The character isn’t given a name of her own, merely defined by her marital status and spoken of in casually misogynistic ways by the ranch workers before her entrance, which she challenges firmly in an electrifying scene in Crooks’ room, with a mixture of defiance and pleading. It soon becomes clear that, like the ranch hands, she too is a second-class citizen with hopes and dreams and shares their basic need for a small plot of land in someone’s heart – “Just a ship looking for a harbour”, to borrow a phrase from Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman. The character, McCauley’s presence and Bea Miller’s costume design calls to mind Tennessee Williams’ misunderstood, love-starved prairie roses Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire’s Blanche.
For this valedictory production, Doran has retained the craftsmanship and services of many fellow creatives who have served his tenure well over the years in order to bringing the West Coast dustbowls of 1930s USA to life in evocative fashion: Sean Crowley is back with his inventive, creative set designs, making good use of the venue’s iconic flytower to raise and lower the life-sized barn set, and the installation of a watery pool of lime and limpid green is an innovative first for the venue, and Ceri James’ lighting is subtle, atmospheric and effective as ever in capturing the play’s changing moods and the humid climate of Solinas, California.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the continued existence of the Torch Theatre is the world’s eighth wonder, thriving and surviving for almost a half-century, keeping the arts flame alive, supporting new talents, and maintaining a stellar reputation. Of Mice And Men marks yet another accomplished piece of work from the West End of Wales, and is deserving of your patronage whether you’re familiar with Steinbeck’s novel or not.
Although this is Peter Doran’s last drama production for the Torch as Artistic Director, Peter will still be in situ for this year’s festive pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, handing over the baton to incoming Artistic Director Chelsey Gillard, who will continue solely in the role from January 2023.
Of Mice and Men opened on Wednesday 5 October and runs until Saturday 22 October, with a BSL-interpreted performance (interpreter Liz May) on Tuesday 11 October. Tickets are available here.