Friday, 20 April 2018

Of mice, men, and a real dog

THE stage is sparse with just a back-projected blue sky and a few tufts of brushwood; the wings are left open. We’re in the vast, arid emptiness of the American Midwest

Of Mice and Men

Oxford Playhouse
Tuesday, May 10
THE stage is sparse with just a back-projected blue sky and a few tufts of brushwood; the wings are left open. We’re in the vast, arid emptiness of the American Midwest.

A lone fiddle player comes to the centre and starts what sounds like a hoedown dance tune but it quickly morphs into Woody Guthrie’s 1940 hymn to utopia, This Land Is Your Land, as the entire cast join in.

It’s a poignant, hopeful start to John Steinbeck’s classic of Thirties mid-Great Depression America, Of Mice and Men.

Birmingham Rep bring this production to the Playhouse in Oxford and they don’t pull any punches.

They bring out Steinbeck’s grand themes by straightforward showing, there is no telling.

The most striking message is the need for affection — not so much to get it, but to give it. It can be the love of your life if you’re lucky, or if you’re not it’s the dead mouse in your pocket that you continue to pet long after you’ve crushed it.

Everyone needs something to love in this play — a hook on which to hang their passion.

Lennie is a giant of a man but with the brain of a four-year-old. The reason he survives is because he is loved by his travelling companion, George, who looks after him, rescues him when in trouble and does his best to keep him out of more of it. Eventually he fails.

Lennie will love a dead mouse but longs to upgrade to live rabbits. As the story progresses his huge strength — so useful in lifting heavy cornbags — leads him to kill a puppy and then, his eventual downfall, the ranch owner’s daughter-in-law.

So, we all need something to caress and care for, but there comes a time when the object of that affection has outlived its usefulness.

An old much-loved dog has become too smelly and incontinent for the ranch hands where Lennie and George end up. So it’s taken out and shot in the head — a cold end to a warm existence.

Humans are treated no more leniently and are cast aside as if they were a Tamagotchi with a flat battery.

It was delightful, by the way, to see a lovely real dog playing the role.

That’s enough to fill a psychiatrist’s waiting room for a decade, but there’s more — there’s dreaming.

Nearly all the hands dream of owning their own ranch. They fantasise about what they’ll do on it — it keeps them going through their backbreaking days.

Lennie dreams of a ranch with rabbits, George of a ranch with cattle and corn, the ranch owner’s daughter-in-law of a career in Hollywood, the ranch owner’s son of a less flighty wife.

Spoiler alert: this play doesn’t end well for anyone, but that’s hardly going to ruin the night for you: it’s like telling you that Mimi dies in La Bohème — you probably already know that.

Of Mice and Men is storytelling at its best — solidly structured, simple and with a hammer blow at the end.

The production flies along on the strength and conviction of the performances — great to see Dudley Sutton playing an old disabled cook, by the way.

The movement is enough to keep the momentum going but never too much, the voices and myriad accents sound mostly authentic, although one or two slip a little.

And the music and musicians add an authentic air with country fiddle, banjo, guitar and drums.

A classic play, very well done and proving once again that less is more.

Until Saturday.

Review: Mike Rowbottom

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