Of Mice and Men

It might be 'mean here' in Of Mice and Men, but George and Lennie melt hearts in the Theatre at the Mill  

'I want to hug him, and squeeze him, and call him George!'

Voiced by the Abominable Snowman from Looney Tunes, the above phrase is played for laughs. However, there is little comical about the inspiration for the Snowman's enthusiastic declaration, John Steinbeck's 1937 novel Of Mice and Men. There might be some jokes, here and there, but they're only fleeting relief from the grim existence Steinbeck paints for his characters, the large, simple Lennie and the little, quiet George.

The story begins on a riverbank, the heat of California simulated by wavering light on two lines of reed. Two labourers George (James Kermac) and Lennie (Christopher Brand) are making their way across Dustbowl America to the Soledad ranch. George warns Lennie not to do any bad things and reminds him of 'what happened in Weed'. It is a quiet foreshadowing of events to come. 

To soothe the childlike Lennie (and moreover, himself), George spins him the familiar dream of a farm of their own, where they'll live off the fat of the land and Lennie will have rabbits to pet.

But Lennie kills the things he loves, crushing the titular mice, a puppy and eventually his and George's dream of a farm.

The theatre lights go from the orange and deep red of evening to complete darkness. The bluegrass banjo and violins that started off wistful now sound more urgent.

Under the direction of Alan Cohen, Stageworks theatre company does a lot with very little. Stage hands rush on stage and quickly convert the riverside set into a bunk house. Sparse as the set is, you can easily believe that outside there are fields, with miles of corn, a threshing machine, and six men making enough noise to simulate an entire work crew.

'It's mean here,' says Lennie in one of his few insightful moments, after encountering the tyrannical and spoilt Curley (Belfast actor Chris Patrick-Simpson), the boss's son. The ranch is also lonely and, like Lennie and George's dream of the farm, each of the cast find something to cling to that keeps them going.

Curley cleaves to the flighty, unsuitable wife he believes is cuckolding him, his wife clings to the attention from the labourers and the old farmhand Candy (Gary Hope) has his dog. That is until someone offers to shoot it, pointing out that, 'This ol’ dog jus’ suffers all the time, he aint having no fun no more'.

And what, the play invites the audience to wonder, of a man whose life is 'no fun no more'? Does he deserve the same fate as the dog?

The black farmhand Crooks (Andrew Dennis), not allowed in the bunkhouse and spending his evenings in solitude, states it the clearest.  'A guy needs somebody—to be near him. Books ain’t no good.' It's ironic that Of Mice and Men was banned in several US schools and libraries for using the 'n'-word, overlooking that it lays bare the issue of segregation.

Of Mice and Men quietly subverts stereotypes even as it presents them. Candy is not the wise old man he seems. George means well but is suspicious of everyone, his silence allowing the worst events to unfold. Curley, a vain little guy who can't help hating and challenging anyone bigger than himself, wears a glove filled with vaseline to keep his hand soft for his wife. inadequacy beneath his paranoia.

The unnamed wife is condemned as a troublemaking tart by the labourers. Yet, she's escaped a dad who called her 'my little girl' and wanted to live with her in a decidedly unfatherly way. She and Lennie talk past, rather than to, each other about their dreams. 

She affectionately calls Lennie a big baby, forgetting the violence that a 200 pound toddler in a tantrum is capable of. Christopher Brand's performance as Lennie was building to this moment, in his tics and detachment, his sudden rages and his relentless pursuit of the 'soft things' that he loves to stroke.

Yet when events spiral down into inevitable tragedy, the audience still gasps. The play puts you in the moment. Even those who know the story and its bitter resolution hope for George and Lennie's dreams to come true, even though they never have and never will.

Apart from some isolated pockets of seniors, the audience consists of GCSE English Literature students. It's gratifying to see Of Mice and Men introduced to a new generation.

No matter what Crooks believed, characters from a book can stir the heart.

Of Mice and Men can be seen at the Riverside Theatre on October 4 and Ardhowen Theatre on October 27