Of Mice & Men at the Dukes

Text by Norman Hadley

Photo by kind permission of Maria Major at the Dukes.

Andrew Ashford and Paul DoddsIf this is what Gordon Brown has saved us all from, then we owe him. This was a nightmare vision of the Depression, with haggard hoboes stumbling from town to town in search of work. Whether by accident or design, staging Steinbeck’s classic tale of economic migrancy during the current recession looked like inspired timing.

And if this was good planning, the execution more than matched it. Thirty seconds was all it took for the theatrical magic to take hold. From the expectant hush of lights-down and a sparse jangle of Robert Johnson chords, two figures shambled on to Alison Heffernan’s minimalist set, clad in ragged denims. Before even the first line of dialogue, one threw himself down and guzzled hands full of water from the imaginary river that flowed along the edge of the stage. There can’t have been anyone in that packed auditorium who couldn’t see that river gliding by. From then on, these guys could convince us of anything.

The two figures are George and Lennie, itinerant farmhands dreaming of a better life while running away from a fate that is forever tied to their heels. Lennie is backward, a generally affable giant whose strength is lethal to the animals he longs to tend. George is the brains of the outfit, driven to distraction by the pursuit of happiness and how much he might achieve without having to carry Lennie everywhere. Any production of Of Mice and Men must hang heavily on the relationship between the two leads and this pairing shouldered the burden with aplomb. The tenderness shown by Paul Dodds’ George was as touching as his outbursts of irritation were convincing and Andrew Ashford inhabited the damaged Lenny with real conviction.

Kevin Dyer’s production does not seek to airbrush out the racism or sexism of the era. The sole black ranchworker, Crooks, is ostracised from the bunkhouse and suffers the N-word repeatedly. The only female character does not even merit a name and is seen largely as a deadly distraction to the men. There is some fleshing-out of her character with her keening for a life with a travelling show or even a scrap of attention, but she is principally an Old Testament temptress. Cloudia Swann makes a good job of a difficult role but I thought the solitary song ill-judged and incongruous.

This is story-telling on an epic, elemental canvas and this cast is equal to the task. Though the characters live in dire privation, there is redemption of a sort here; a brutal frontier justice in making the best of a bad situation, that thing we sometimes call the human condition. And if you need to leave the auditorium on an upbeat note you can at least reflect that, even after the credit crunch, it’s not that hard to get a mortgage.

The play is on at the Dukes until 24th October. Box office 01524 598500

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