Review – Of Mice and Men, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th February 2018

Of Mice and MenOnce again, I have to confess my ignorance, gentle reader, and tell you that I have never read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I know that for someone with a degree in English that’s a pretty shoddy state of affairs. Fortunately, Mrs Chrisparkle was also equally ignorant, but that’s A Good Thing Overall when it comes to seeing a dramatization of a well-known story. Experiencing a work of art for the first time, I didn’t know how it was going to end up; so if it is a good story, it ought to keep us spellbound. And it did; eventually. I sensed it was never going to end well – and I wasn’t wrong.

OMAM7I hadn’t even given any thought to the title, but of course it goes back to the old saying that the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Or, as the late Dowager Mrs C used to delight in enunciating, gang aft agley; she was always a poetry purist. It’s certainly true that those best laid plans end up pretty worthless in this story of the unlikely friendship between intelligent, savvy George Milton and the simple yet sadly brutal Lennie Small. I like the concept of unlikely friendships; I have many of them myself. On the road, trying to find work wherever they can get it, George and Lennie are expected at The Boss’s ranch to “buck barley” (whatever that is); and they should be fine provided Lennie remembers to keep his mouth shut. Their best laid plan is to get enough cash to buy their own farm somewhere, so that they can live in security and safety; not afraid of hard work but hoping for the benefits that hard work would bring them.

OMAM6However…. at the Boss’s ranch, they meet the wretched little Curley, one of those pint-sized bullies, and his bored and presumably sexually frustrated wife (who goes by the name of… Curley’s wife). She likes to hang around the guys for company, but the only consequence of that is that Curley gets even more annoyed and bullying, as he suspects everyone’s having an affair with her. He decides to take it out on Lennie because it appears that he won’t fight back…. Until he does…

OMAM5You knew all that anyway, gentle reader, and there’s no doubt that it is a good story and maybe even something of a tear-jerker. Even so, I found the first act to be extremely slow and exposition-intensive. It certainly improves with the fight scene, and with the second act things get much more interesting. On the face of it, David Woodhead’s set works well, with the simple evocation of the brushwoods by the river bank, and the various rooms and dorms of the Barn and Bunkhouse at the ranch. It’s a coincidence, I am sure, but the opening scene features a river at the far front of the stage, exactly the same as in last year’s Grapes of Wrath. One wonders if Steinbeck had a thing about rivers.

OMAM4In that production, there was real water in a tank which gave a tremendous sense of reality. Here, though, the river is imaginary, represented only by the sounds of gushing water when Lennie and George sloosh their heads underneath or cup their hands to splash themselves with. I’m normally one to prefer design that works on the imagination more than being obviously “real” – but in this case, I found the artifice of the design rather annoying. You could see there was no water; you could see, in the elaborate fight scene, that none of the punches was landing. The reality came from the sound effects; if you see the show, you’ll know precisely what I mean. It’s not often a simple sound effect can make you squirm in your seat. There were also a few weird incidents offstage that caused the otherwise quite atmospheric lighting to flicker every time someone walked somewhere they shouldn’t. There was even one occasion when someone came on stage, behind the semi-transparent backdrop, hovered for a bit, then wandered off. If this was meant to suggest the world going on around them, it didn’t work. It just looked like someone got their cue wrong.

OMAM2But enough carping. The production is lucky enough to have some excellent performances, none greater than Matthew Wynn as Lennie, a gentle giant if ever there was one. It must be a really tough role to get right; I can imagine it being so easy to pantomime-up the character’s simple nature, or to brutalise down his incredible strength. Mr Wynn pitches it just perfectly and makes him a very believable character; effortlessly portraying Lennie’s emotions that he wears on his sleeve and unnerving us when his demons start to show through. It’s a really superb performance. Richard Keightley is also extremely good as George, not hiding his irritation at how Lennie slows him down and stops him (at least, as he sees it) from getting on well in life. But he is a true friend, and always offers kindness to Lennie, right to the bitter end.

OMAM1Andrew Boyer is excellent as the old retainer Candy, clutching at the straw of potential partnership with George and Lennie, knowing he is powerless to prevent his old dog from being put out of its misery, clinging to the wreckage of memories that are worth so much more than today’s reality. Kamran Darabi Ford does a good job of conveying the aggressive character of Curley, punchy little prick that he is, and Rosemary Boyle is extremely good at balancing that slightly coquettish, slightly come-on look with her protestations that’s she’s a good girl deep down. The other characters are all very well portrayed; I especially enjoyed Kevin Mathurin’s Crooks, annoyed at the others invading his space when he’s not allowed to invade theirs, Darren Bancroft’s feisty Carlson and Harry Egan’s excitable Whit.

OMAM3Right up until the final moment we weren’t sure how the story would resolve itself; that’s a testament to the mastery of John Steinbeck. But I confess I wasn’t sufficiently moved to need to wipe away a tear. For some reason, the production appealed much more to the head than the heart, and I found that thinking about George’s reasons for his actions and why he did it, much more absorbing than any emotional reaction. Having read the synopsis and leafed through my copy of the book, this seems to me to be very true to Steinbeck’s original work, including the occasional use of the N word, which always makes an audience feel uncomfortable, so be prepared. After its week here in Northampton, it goes on to Mold, Glasgow, Salisbury, Brighton, Wimbledon, Tunbridge Wells, Manchester and Swansea.

Review – The James Plays, National Theatre of Scotland, Derngate, Northampton, 16th April 2016

The James PlaysAs a Sassenach, it’s fairly shocking how Scottish history pre-1603 didn’t get taught at school when I was a lad. Everyone knows that James VI of Scotland became James I of England, but who were James I – V? Thanks to Shakespeare, we know of Macbeth, and by association Duncan, but I reckon most English people would be hard-pressed to give you the name of any other Scottish monarch. So one function of Rona Munro’s The James Plays is already sorted – filling the gaping holes in the brains of us folk south of the border with some of the missing bits of Scottish history. It’s almost a shame she confesses in the programme that she made some of it up.

James IThe James Plays were premiered in 2014 in a joint production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Edinburgh International Festival. Now they’re back for a UK and International tour, popping up for weekends in a theatre near you, where all three plays are performed on each day – James I in the morning, James II for the matinee, and James III in the evening. What struck me was how self-contained each play is. Mrs Chrisparkle and I grasped the production with all our mettle and saw all three plays on the same day – rather like we did with Young Chekhov last year. But that isn’t necessary. You don’t even need to see them in the chronological order, although the final tableau of James III makes more sense if you do.

Steven MillerEach play also has its own very distinctive vibe, with the three kings having very different personality characteristics. James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock is on a grand scale, full of warrior declamations, court scenes, a Royal Wedding, and plenty of bloody deaths. It’s the tale of the ascent of the king and his subsequent downfall. It’s the one that felt most Shakespearean to me; it’s also, by far, the funniest. Yes, you don’t expect these plays to be funny, do you? At times, James I (the play, not so much the man) is hysterically funny. James II – Day of the Innocents feels much more introverted by comparison, dealing with the shy boy king and his growing friendship with William Douglas. Once again it’s a play featuring the strategies of war and political motivations, but it’s seen more from the perspective of emotions and relationships. It also sports a tremendous trick on the audience with a repeated scene where his mother becomes his wife – you’ll have to see it to appreciate what I mean. James III – The True Mirror has an almost surreal atmosphere at times, with a king whose grasp on sanity is sometimes questionable, and a Royal court in disharmony due to adultery and financial mishandling, but ending with a more optimistic sense of what the future is going to hold.

EnsembleThe three plays are directed by Laurie Sansom and it’s a pleasure to welcome him back to the theatre where he was Artistic Director until 2013. I can’t think of a safer pair of hands to tackle this triptych of treachery than Mr Sansom. Having seen a number of his productions, I remain convinced that no one can create a pure sense of ensemble within a cast like he can. I don’t know how he does it. Maybe he adds a little cement to their breakfast cereal in the mornings. But whenever you see a Sansom show you can instantly recognise that amazing understanding between cast members which leads to a generosity of performance, a truly confident fluidity of movement, and a communal sense that they’re all in it together. You can even see this in the casting; one actor will take a major role in one of the plays, then merely be listed as ensemble in another. Not that ensemble is a second-class role when Laurie’s at the helm.

StewartsFor this production you can choose from the standard auditorium seating or tiered seating on the stage. I’m usually jealous of people who see a production from the stage because I always think they’re getting an intimate involvement with the action that I’m missing out on. That’s because, when I was 15, I went on a school trip to see Equus,- brave of the teacher if nothing else – and we were perched on on-stage benches in spitting distance of the late Colin Blakely and Gerry Sundquist and it was theatrical magic. However, it wasn’t that long ago that I retried the experiment with onstage seating for Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios and it was a total disaster. Couldn’t see a bloody thing. So this time I went with my gut reaction to take my usual Row G of the Stalls and it was the best decision. There would be a few scenes where you could not see what was going on if you were seated on stage, and you would certainly lose the overall impact of the grand spectacle. Plus, there’s a socking great sword stuck into the stage and if you were sat behind that, I doubt if you could see past the hilt.

Don't trust this familyAs I suggested earlier, you can’t pick out one star performer or role who leads the cast as you might in most standard productions. So let’s start with the kings and work backwards. James I is played by that charismatic and exciting actor Steven Miller, whom we last saw as the most convincingly manipulative Iago in Frantic Assembly’s Othello. He brings to the role a sense of innate nobility and quiet power which makes so strong a contrast with Henry V and the ruffian Stewart family whose capture he witnesses and whose company he has to endure. He really brings out the humanity of the character, trying to do the right thing and to balance his regal and family obligations. He also adds a tremendous naiveté to the whole wedding scene. I think he’s definitely One To Watch.

James IIAs James II, Andrew Rothney is totally believable as the nervous little boy shutting himself away in his kist, slowly finding his confidence to become an assertive young man. Is it wrong of me to wish that his birthmark hadn’t been shaped like the outline of Scotland? But I also thought Mr Rothney was chillingly superb as the malicious Walter Stewart in James I, scornfully patronising the king and justifying his own inhumane behaviour. Matthew Pidgeon’s James III is an increasingly disturbing portrayal of a man on the edge, constantly pushing at barriers to see what he will get away with next. With his eyeliner and ever closer interest in all things camp, he reminded me of a psychotic Tim Minchin. And his Henry V is a brilliantly rumbustious and argumentative presence, combining arrogant brutality with a surprising vulnerability. Three fantastic performances.

Andrew RothneyThese regal leaders have some feisty women to contend with too. Rosemary Boyle is brilliant as Joan, particularly in her younger days, fussing and fuming with an explosive vitality, assuming an air of responsibility whilst she’s still really just a little girl. Her torment as she is married to the unpredictable king is wonderfully portrayed in the scene where he is late – then absent – for dinner when they should be providing hospitality to the Stewarts. Blythe Duff’s Isabella is an unapologetically assertive opponent who’s not above psyching out the queen with her “soup”, but her reaction to her personal tragedy of losing her sons is genuinely heartbreaking, and her perpetual presence up in the prison is really moving. She’s also terrific as the sarcastic but also kindly Annabella, a hanger-on at court but giving much needed support to her self-hating great-nephew at the end. Malin Crépin is excellent as James III’s queen Margaret, a true survivor, combatting her liege’s excesses by distracting him with colourful scarves, carrying on the business of ruling behind his back, defeating the influence of his girlfriend with the use of the mirror, and even assuming power in his absence.

James IIIOther stand out performances include Sally Reid as the cheeky but loyal Meg, sent as a “present” to Joan and who becomes James II’s nanny; Andrew Still, outstanding as William Douglas, James II’s boyhood friend but eventual enemy; John Stahl, forceful and dominant as Murdac the Regent of Scotland prior to James I’s coronation; Ali Craig, as the aggressive and powerful Big Jim Stewart; Peter Forbes as the wretched Balvenie, picking his way through the politics to get the best deal for himself; and Daniel Cahill, as the son that James III didn’t care for and abandoned, who develops into a 14-year-old warrior and, in a very moving and brave final scene, comes to terms with his regicidal action and prepares to become James IV hereafter – kudos to you sir. But, as I said earlier, this is primarily an ensemble production and every single member of the cast gives to the day a huge commitment, great style, and brings the best out of Rona Munro’s wonderfully modern text.

Mary Annabella and BalvenieExpect a day of fantastic spectacle, superbly evocative music, and thoroughly engrossing drama. The costume, and most particularly lighting departments exceed all expectations and play a truly dynamic role in the overall production. Yes, I did think the second play would have benefited from being about twenty minutes shorter; and yes, although it was highly amusing in its anachronism, I was most surprised that the court of James III was so keen on The Human League’s back catalogue. But, above all, expect a day of electric performances and riveting drama. The tour continues till June and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

P. S. I bumped into Laurie Sansom during the interval of James III. I told him he hadn’t lost it. He seemed relieved.