Writer Ed King / Photographers Ciaran Bagnall and Mark Senior (production), Kris Askey (publicity)
Written as a novel for the stage, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men has been treading the boards since its release in 1937.
Now, over 85 years since you could first read or watch it, Steinbeck’s futile journey towards the American dream has made its way to the Birmingham Rep – directed by Iqbal Khan, back in the second city after his extraordinary Commonwealth Games 2022 opening ceremony.
But whilst Of Mice and Men is often cited as a literary classic, one of the books you know even if you’ve not read – studied in schools and classrooms across the world – it has also been routinely criticised for its perceived brutality, misogyny, and racist content.
As late as 2021, the 30,000-word novella was No8 on the American Library Association list of banned books in the US, sandwiched by Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Khan, however, takes the bull by the horns and sticks virtually verbatim to the original text – throwing in some new lines to give more depth to the only nameless character, Curley’s Wife, played superbly in this production by Maddy Hill.
The premise is simple: set in the Great Depression, in America, ranch workers George (Tom McCall) and Lennie (William Young) are heading to a new farm to buck barley wheat, having been chased out of their last town, and hoping to build enough money for a small homestead George dreams of one day owning.
Lennie dreams of tending rabbits, with a childlike obsession “to pet nice things with my fingers, sof’ things” which drives his character’s actions and ultimately delivers “another bad thing” that cements his downfall.
Everything about Lennie is childlike, apart from his stature and incredible strength – with the beginning of the narrative describing him killing mice just by petting them, and the clenched fist misunderstanding that saw them flee in the first place. And it only gets worse.
Set in a handful of locations, Ciaran Bagnall’s exquisite set – made from tall slats of broken timber, that shift like the fractured ambitions of the protagonists – is wonderfully effective. As are the shards of light that permeate each scene.
Music and song carry us from act to act, with the full cast appearing as an ensemble both lamenting the hardships of workers and their chased dreams keeping them at the grindstone.
The cast contains no weak links, with standout performances from the two central characters – George (Tom McCall) and Lennie (William Young) – and frighteningly real portrayals of 30’s America black/white divide through old ranch hand Candy (Lee Ravitz) and tolerated but segregated stable buck Crooks (Reece Pantry).
Again, a mention goes to Maddy Hill for her superb portrayal of the only female character, Curly’s Wife, who is browbeaten into loneliness by her jealous new husband – and both objectified and vilified by the all-male environment. And if those who voted to ban this book could see Hill’s representation of Steinbeck’s frustrated femme fatale, they might sleep a little easier at night.
But ultimately the story speaks for itself, and aside from some clever fringe decoration – such a beautiful display of metaphor and red velvet at the very start – Khan lets the literature stand on its own two feet.
Any additions arguably add weight or simply celebrate the theatrics of theatre, like Candy’s mangy puppet dog that mirrors so much of the play’s meaning.
It is also worth mentioning various characters are played by actors with ‘lived experience’ of their on-stage disabilities – including William Young/Lennie, who has Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum (ACC) and ‘complex learning difficulties’. The rest you can guess or Google.
Revising a role he first played in 2017, Young is excellent as the childlike mountain of a man who can, and does, crush every bone in a hand just by not letting go. Citing his ACC as a useful tool for “getting into Lennie’s mindset”, Young delivers a cracking character regardless – whilst at the same time hopefully both inspiring and challenging those who need either.
But the ultimate success of Iqbal Khan’s Of Mice and Men stage play is that it made me enjoy the book even more, bringing the hard-to-like characters off the page and into a world where I just about could.
George is mean, but I understand better why. Lennie is a danger, but I’m more endeared to him than frightened for him. Curley’s Wife now has much more of my sympathy, and the moment I have enough jack I’m taking Candy and Crooks into town for a shot.
And to underscore this point, I’ve started rereading the book – something you could probably do in less time than it takes to watch Khan’s production, and not a bad idea before heading in.
But watch the play too. After all, Of Mice and Men was always meant to be absorbed both onstage and off.
Of Mice and Men runs at the Birmingham Rep until 8 April, for more details and links to online ticket sales visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/of-mice-and-men
For more from Birmingham Rep visit: www.birmingham-rep.co.uk