Vicky Lord

Review/Discussion: Of Mice and Men

During the afternoon of Saturday, October 28th, I took a little journey back in time. As an English Literature student at University some of the books I studied back in GCSE feel like a lifetime away. So, when I was given the opportunity to see Of Mice and Men, one of the most well-known of these GCSE books, brought to life on stage at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre I was immediately intrigued.

This production put on by August.012, has unfortunately finished it’s run at the Chapter Arts Centre. So, for this article, I’m still going to include some aspects of reviewing the production but I’m mainly going to focus on the adaptation of the text specifically and any intriguing differences which were included and I’ll discuss how these changes affect the text and its place in today’s culture. Just a little heads up, there is so much in this production that this is going to be a long article but if you just want a review of the production you can read Troy Lenny’s review here.

Mathilde Lopez directs an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella that tells the story of two unlikely travelling companions Lennie Small and George Milton. They travel from ranch to ranch in California seeking work during the Great Depression in order to achieve their very own American Dream of independence and security. Along the way, they encounter themes of loyalty, injustice, race and even sexuality. Thanks to both the education system and the internet the spoilers concerning the end of this novella are widely known, but I will still attempt to be sensitive to those who may have managed to avoid spoilers so far.

This production constantly blurs the line between the setting of the Great Depression and the 21st Century. The setting of the ranch is still the same and the theme of the American Dream is still very strong. However, there are changes to the script which flicker between major and minor that addresses 21st century elements like the set, the microphones and even prawn cocktail crisps. The more major changes will be addressed below when I talk about specific characterisation. While these flippant mentions of 21st-century aspects were certainly startling when I first sat down they certainly made the difference between our time and theirs starker but also more familiar.

In my opinion, this production uses this blend to bring out themes that aren’t normally connected with Of Mice and Men. For example. Curley’s fight with Lennie is commentated on like a modern boxing match by Slim and George through the microphones. To me, this brought out the theme of observation and watching, especially connected with the lack of context the other characters have concerning Lennie and some of his actions. Another example of this comes in the ending. The final recitation of George and Lennie’s American Dream in this production, to me, had a more solid connection with heaven or at least a heavenly state that was an unobtainable state on Earth. The level of acting in this moment is really something special as this becomes more George’s realisation despite it affecting Lennie more directly.

A cast of just five carries this show. I found this aspect very intriguing as certain actors had to double up. George and Lennie remain completely grounded throughout the whole show but I was amazed by the flexibility of the three actors who had to constantly switch from character to character. I like to think that one of the most intriguing switches shows just how far we have come from this period of racial segregation. The character of Crooks is always an integral part of any reading or performance of Of Mice and Men because of his comments regarding his experience and actual implementation of racial segregation. However, due to the actors doubling up the ranch owner and Curley’s father is actually played by the same actor as Crooks. While there is no added comment on the ranch owner being of any different ethnicity it is certainly an intriguing angle to take considering the setting of the text.

I found Curley and Curley’s Wife being played by the same female actor very interesting as John Steinbeck himself, to paraphrase, stated that Curley’s Wife is not a person, she is a symbol and, specifically, a threat to Lennie. She is also mainly examined as an example of a wife being the property of her husband, so to have these two characters played by the same actress not only emphasises how she has no independence beyond her husband it also highlights that Curley has barely any independece beyond her. I think that this is a very intriguing way to give Curley’s Wife more prominence and, in my opinion quite rightly, play down any threatening nature Curley may have had.

In my opinion, I liked how this production gave Curley’s Wife more weight. Sara Gregory’s vehemence when talking to Crooks makes Curley’s Wife far more threatening than I ever remember her being and I love it. While in her main scene they move away slightly from the original text I think that these additions are certainly useful for younger audiences to see what must be added to the dialogue and her character to make her a woman you may see in the 21st century and how this differs from the text’s setting. She is far more hysteric and actually goes to the point of reigniting her denied dream of acting in Hollywood and reaches the point of leaving her husband. This vital addition makes her death all the more tragic as a comment that a woman in the setting of not only the ranch but also the Great Depression could never leave her husband, let alone achieve her long lost dreams. It’s certainly an interesting take on a deliberately vague character who was written to be barely human.

Even with these intriguing differences, one of the most interesting and outstanding parts of this play for me was actually seemingly a throwaway line from Lennie. He says it so quickly that some may have missed it but it actually is a massively important line to insert into the direct dialogue of Of Mice and Men. It is clear in the book and subsequent films that Lennie is, in some way, mentally disabled. However, it is never directly stated in the text what form this takes. The closest we get is George’s fabrication that Lennie was kicked in the head by a horse but Lennie questions this and it becomes clear that all we got was a fabricated explanation from George. This production completely changes that. Lennie states that George has said he has Dyspraxia.

This is another monumental change that may seem small but it highlights the vast difference between the setting of Of Mice and Men and the 21st Century and between ambiguity which makes Lennie quite frightening to those who don’t know why he is different and a time where the condition is known and labelled. I also like that this then adds weight to the questions of intent and knowledge from an outsider’s perspective concerning Lennie’s character. Is the reason that George sticks by Lennie after all of the bad things he has done because he has knowledge of Lennie’s specific condition and he knows that he is not a bad person because of this? It certainly adds so much more to their relationship.

The production also stood out in the way the deaths of certain characters were presented. There are two main deaths of human characters in Of Mice and Men and both have become very well known to the point of fame. This production did not let down this reputation. The first was very brutal and clear in its use of physical action to show exactly how that death came about. The second brought a spectacular building of tension which I felt directly despite knowing what was coming. The lighting in this finale was also spectacular and I like that they decided to use lighting rather than loud sound effects.

The only death depiction that I wasn’t a fan of was how the death of Candy’s dog was handled. I understand that Of Mice and Men can get quite heavy but I just wasn’t a fan of the use of audience participation which turned the shooting of Candy’s dog into a more comic moment. I really liked how Carson came in with (in the setting of the play) the dog’s blood on his arms and this could have been a very dramatic moment but it was mismatched with the comedy that came before.

In conclusion, as a student who has studied this book to see it put on stage in such an intriguing way with some inspiring changes that highlight both how far we have come and also how close we still are to the troubling time and setting of America’s Great Depression despite the difference in the country. For the most part, the execution of these changes was also very well done by August.012 and I would be very interested in seeing how they could take on other books and forms of literature because I was so intrigued and impressed by this tackling of one of the most well known and controversial of novellas. For this reason, I’m giving this production four stars for its adaptation of Steinbeck’s classic.

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    Review Crazy For You, UK Tour by Vicky Lord

     

    4 Stars4 / 5

     

    This week I embarked on something new. I went to see one of my mum’s original favourite musicals. Crazy For You is considered to be ‘the last of the Gershwins’ light hearted musicals’ and started life over 80 years ago, first appearing in the 1930s. After a lengthily history, including a name change from Girl Crazy, Crazy For You opened on Broadway in 1992 and has now been revived in the UK for a brand new, star studded tour which started in August 2017 in Plymouth after a run at The Watermill Theatre in July 2016.

    My mum originally saw this production with my Grandmother when Ruthie Henshall performed the part of Polly and she was very excited to relive the experience at one of my favourite theatres, the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. However, I went into this production completely blind. I vaguely knew of a couple of the songs but I knew nothing of the story or setting so I was interested to see what I would make of a ‘traditional’ musical considering that my taste mainly draws me to shows like Wicked, Jekyll and Hyde and Phantom of the Opera.

    Despite going in blind to the story of this show I was certainly familiar with the cast. Tom Chambers plays the enthusiastic, lovelorn dancer Bobby Child who spearheads the effort to save a theatre from his mother’s bank. Chambers’ performance in my opinion encapsulates the heart of the original production of Crazy For You. He does this through his outstanding tap dancing and his comedic timing, which is vital for this script as it holds so much humour, had me laughing from start to finish. He feels so authentic in this part that I truly can’t imagine anyone else playing this role.

    Despite being the leading man, I feel that Tom Chambers was accidently overtaken by his leading lady. Charlotte Wakefield, coming from a successful touring stint as Truly Scrumptious after taking over from Carrie Hope Fletcher in the UK tour of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, stole the show from all of the other principles in my opinion as she demonstrated that she can sing, dance and act as the head strong but sensitive Polly Baker. I only wish that there were more opportunities to hear her wonderful belting ability. Polly was by far my favourite character in this show and Wakefield is, in my opinion, the perfect actress to bring her to life. I would recommend this show to anyone simply to see Wakefield’s performance alongside Cambers.

    However, Polly highlights the one fault I have with Bobby’s characterisation within the show. During songs such as ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ and ‘But Not For Me’ the audience are treated to an in depth look into Polly’s thoughts and feelings which gives her depth as she reviles that her inner self is more sensitive than her tough exterior. On the other hand, I feel that this insight is missing from Bobby’s characterisation. This absence is mainly felt during ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’. Prior to this song, during the New York Interlude, Bobby is given the New York theatre. This song shows Bobby’s realisation that he really wants to go back to Hard Rock and Polly and at the end he rips the deed to the theatre to shreds. However, his specific desire to give up the theatre seems strange as it is only his love of Polly which is referred to throughout the song. Considering that all Bobby wants to do is dance and his possible conflict between owning the theatre and chasing his love seems underdeveloped here.

    Caroline Flack is another star name heading up the cast as Irene Roth. I was not surprised at all to see her name on the cast list given her dancing experience shown on Strictly Come Dancing. She also sat in the centre of Irene’s character as a spoilt, demanding fiancée to Bobby, despite some sketchy details as to how she actually gained that title. However, I simply wish that her character was given more detail and bite. As I said, the details of how she came to call herself Bobby’s fiancée is sketchy so I would have loved to have seen that story be given far more discussion in the show as both Bobby and Irene switch from lover to lover throughout the show. Irene’s lack of detail and bite are combined in Irene’s relationship with Lank Hawkins. I was expecting them to become a couple in a plan to scupper Bobby and Polly’s attempts to save the theatre and this plot point is actually referenced by Irene but then it simply disappears. The two do eventually get married but their reasoning and Lank’s threat to the theatre are phased out completely. This was quite disappointing for me and I was sad to see that it also seeped into Flack’s performance of ‘Naughty Baby’. In this number Irene seems to shift from hating Lank to wanting him quite randomly simply because her intentions are not mentioned. This did not provide Flack with any opportunity to put some real intention into this song and her singing and even dancing seemed a little flat and soft, which did not fit with the cunning, sharp nature of the song.

    I have saved one of the best aspects of this production for last. The ensemble is incredible. I cannot overstate how talented they are. Not only do they all sing, act as individual characters and obviously dance to the level of Tom Chambers and Charlotte Wakefield but they also are the orchestra. Each member of the ensemble plays multiple instruments throughout the show with no sheet music present, ever. This astounded me and I loved this original iconic aspect of the show. I must admit that this was slightly distracting during some songs because all I wanted to do was watch the violinists but there are plenty of songs where they are fully integrated into the staging. This production shows a true collaboration between Diego Pitarch’s set and the ensemble’s function as the orchestra. I loved the theatre set piece as it moved between the two locations of the show but it also fully integrated the instruments into the piece. The set and lighting add another level of polish to this production.

    Overall, I had a lovely time seeing this show and I would give it four stars. The comedic script is right up my street and the gorgeous sets and lighting highlighted the dance aspect to create a treat for the eyes. While I feel some aspects of the story and characterisation could have been improved, the true stars of the show, Charlotte Wakefield and the ensemble acting as the orchestra, truly blew me away. I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to try out this intriguing production and to give my mum the chance to see one of her favourite shows brought into the 21st century of theatrical production.

    Crazy For You, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff.

    05 Sep – 09 Sep 2017
    Starring Tom Chambers, Caroline Flack and Charlotte WakefieldTickets: £17.50 – £49.50 (£19 – £51*)
    Age Guidance: 6+ (No under 2s)

    Running Time: approximately 2 hours 35 minutes including an interval

     

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