Like many people, I first encountered this iconic piece of literature during my school days – and I was curious to see how the familiar tale of rural America would transition to Brighton’s Theatre Royal. Very successfully, as it turns out. The set was fantastic – put together by the ensemble of actors, accompanied by live musicians – and formed the perfect backdrop to the touching story of friendship between George (played by William Rodell) and Lennie (Kristian Phillips). The pair are farm workers, constantly on the move in the search for employment, but dreaming of eventually having enough money to buy their own land and build their own home.
As soon as they stepped onto the stage, Rodell and Phillips embodied the volatile but endearing relationship between the two principal characters. Phillips is superb as gentle giant Lennie, who is a lost soul without the stabilising influence of George, and his portrayal just got better and better as the play went on. Rodell does an equally fine job pushing the narrative along, balancing the hard-man act with a more caring role as Lennie’s friend.
I was quickly drawn into their drama, and cared about what happened to them right from the start – though as anyone who’s read the novella will know, a sense of impending doom is never far away. For this is a story we all know on so many levels. It’s a tale of loyalty and survival, and of people who are sadly misunderstood through the prejudices and assumptions of others. The production doesn’t shrink from its portrayal of the time, where segregation is a reality and women should remain unseen, barefoot in the kitchen where they belong.
Dave Fishley plays the outcast Crooks – mistreated simply because of the colour of his skin – with a haunting bittersweet demeanour. Saoirse-Monica Jackson, meanwhile, should be congratulated for her professional debut as Curley's Wife – a character who doesn’t even get her own name, instead identified by her marriage to a weak and cruel husband. Only in the powerful, pivotal scene with Phillips do we get a sense of who she really is in her own right.
So it’s a shame to have to say this, but the one thing which disappointed me was arguably the most important moment of all: the ending. The dramatic tension builds up nicely, and the impression of urgency and chaos is captured well by the ensemble. But the climax of the final scene – such an affecting moment in the novella – left me strangely unmoved. Perhaps it’s just impossible to recapture the emotional punch of the original, especially when almost everyone already knows how the story ends.
All the same, there is much to recommend this production: convincing performances, a versatile set and live music accurately representative of the Great Depression. As the curtain fell, I was left wondering whether you need to achieve your dreams – or whether, like the child-like Lennie, it’s enough simply to believe in them. Whether you’re closely familiar with the Steinbeck novella, or just studied it at school (and there were plenty of school-age students in the audience), you’re sure to appreciate the transition from page to stage.