I have never seen an adaptation of a classic, well loved text before and really felt that the pivotal moments of the story were told better on stage than on the page. So when I read in the West Yorkshire Playhouse programme that John Steinbeck had said of his novella Of Mice and Men that it was ‘a tricky little thing designed to teach me to write for the theatre’, I thought that his story had served its purpose perfectly.
In Of Mice and Men, two migrant workers travel through California during the Great Depression taking any ranch work they can. Lennie is big and childlike while George is Lennie’s bear-leader; small and quick. They need each other. Lennie loves to pet things accidentally to death; George tries to keep Lennie out of trouble and propels them on with a dream of a land of their own with all the rabbits that Lennie can grasp with his massive hands. But they end up on a ranch where Lennie’s petting gets him into deep water and George cannot save him. Woven in with the main characters are people grasping what friendships they can, and clinging to what comfort and companionship is available. One of those characters is the boss’s son’s other half known only as Curley’s Wife who is played by Heather Christian…and I’ll come back to her.
This is a vast production. Max Jones’ poetic set design and Tim Mitchell’s powerful lighting utilise the expanse of the WYP’s Quarry space to every edge. Mark Rosenblatt’s direction leaves no character without exploration and purpose. There are many moments when the scenes are so beautifully framed they almost become fine art paintings.
One of the pivotal stage/page moments was played with intricate pathos by Johnson Willis as the old-time ranch worker Candy who is almost past the autumn of his days and keeping hold of his last-legs companion, an old hound. When Candy has to kow-tow to the insistence that the dog is depressingly foul to behold (wreaking of death and lumbering on painfully and pointlessly), he lets another rancher put the poor thing out of its misery. For the moments preceding the sound of the shot and the awful minutes after, you cannot take your eyes of the silent and retreating Curly. This is direction and performance holding hands tightly and trusting the audience to watch closely.
The other crucial moment is the last scene for Curley’s tragic Wife played by Heather Christian. Actor Dyfrig Morris’s huge loveable Lennie is like a small boy trying to stifle a firecracker before he gets into trouble for lighting it. It’s a fast and terrible moment. We are left only with the connotations of the sweet and lonely character of Curley’s Wife – the delicate short-lived fragile beauty is suffocated.
So now, let’s talk about the absolute gem and key cog in the cast and crew, Heather Christian. Her performance as Curley’s Wife and her musical direction really make this play for me. The programme tells me of her status and pedigree. But I don’t really care if she’s part of New York-underground-avante-garde-supercool-elite-posh tramps or if she just finished a BTEC at Huddersfield. She has an amazing musical talent: she sounds like a Karen Dalton/Doris Day cross-breed and conducts the musical proceedings just like Amy Winehouse. She demands to be lifted from her lonely existence in her portrayal of Curley’s Wife. She has orchestrated the music to be the beating blue heart of the production and has freshened up the portrayal of Curley’s Wife as a strong and trapped woman where usually we witness a breathy and giggly moth.
I am not just blowing smoke up everyone’s long johns here. The opening scene between Lennie and George is pitched too high and tense and there are some unnecessary dressings that serve no purpose to the story, as well as a Donnie Darko moment that almost undermines Lennie’s final scene. I think these things because I love the book so much. And so I don’t say lightly that some moments on stage were more poignant than on the page.
I think this will sell well. I am going to go again.
Images by Jonathan Keenan
What: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Where: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
When: until March 29, 2014
More info: www.wyp.org.uk