Review by Raphael Kohn
It seems that every pupil in the UK studies John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men for their GCSE English exam, and it’s pretty obvious why. With themes of loneliness, aspiration and power, Of Mice and Men is a timeless (albeit not uncontroversial) classic – the question remains: could the Birmingham Rep theatre once again rise to the challenge of making this timeless story accessible, and relevant, to a 2023 audience?
Originally written as a novella in 1937 and adapted as a play by the author in the same year, Of Mice and Men follows George and Lennie, two ranch workers in the deep south of the USA, as they move across California looking for job opportunities to fulfil their American Dream of owning and running their own small ranch. Along the way, at the farm they settle at, they encounter bullying, racism, sexism and ableism – all problems that are too relevant even to this day and age.
Part of where this arises is in the treatment of Lennie, a mentally disabled character. The Birmingham Rep specifically targeted their casting towards disabled and neurodivergent performers for this part, and the result is refreshingly powerful. As Lennie, William Young is an absolute revelation, bringing gentle subtlety and refreshing authenticity to the role. A veteran performer as the character, having first played him in 2017, Young’s portrayal is sensitive and well-deserving of the rapturous applause he received.
He is, by and large, well complemented by his co-stars, who mostly double as ensemble and as their own individual parts. While I found quite a few accents to be mildly questionable and not entirely plausible, the ensemble as a whole were strong, especially with their singing and movement (choreographed by Yarit Dor), to develop the transitions between scenes. Puppetry, controlled by Jake Benson onstage and directed by Michael Crouch, is performed to perfection and was a welcome addition to the production.
Iqbal Khan, an Associate Director at the Birmingham Rep whose previous productions of Tartuffe (RSC, Birmingham Rep) and Othello (RSC) have both astounded me, helms this creation of Steinbeck’s Great Depression-era world. This may well be where the production almost slips a touch; with the energy often being so subtle and slow, it can risk dragging, especially in the much longer first act. It’s a pleasure, therefore, that the second act manages to regain some of the lost energy of the first, especially as the climax neared.
The star of the show is certainly Ciarán Bagnall’s minimalist yet breathtaking set, of a wooden diamond on the floor with a huge hanging wooden setpiece from above. Like the spine of a wooden skeleton, it hangs over the performers throughout and serves as a constant reminder of the loneliness and poverty the characters are facing. Bagnall serves as lighting designer alongside set designer, and the synergy between the two disciplines is brilliant, with the light percolating through the bony set’s gaps like water through fingers. The simplicity of the lighting complements the production’s quiet plainness, although this became close to becoming too simple at times and reducing the energy of the production too much.
I was somewhat disappointed that more was not done with the themes of sexism and racism that are in the work. Lennie, Candy (an old, disabled farmhand played by Lee Ravitz) and Crooks (a black, disabled farmhand played by Reece Pantry) all suffer discrimination on the basis of their disabilities, a timely and relevant issue in today’s society. Yet, it felt like something of a missed opportunity that this felt underdeveloped in this production, as if more could have been made of this in light of 2023’s continuing issues with ableism. Similarly, the racism that Crooks faces as the only Black man on the farm could have been used as a fantastic reflection on today’s injustices, but it felt like a fleeting glance into the past’s problems, which for a production like this may have been truly powerful if further developed.
Yet, the climax of the show (I won’t spoil this crucial plot point) was brilliantly staged and developed. With a build-up of sound and light heightening the tension, my heart was beating so heavily in my throat that I feared I was going to pass out as the show reached the apex of its drama.
Despite occasional lapses in energy, a genius set, lighting, and a tour-de-force performance from William Young in the role of Lennie, makes Of Mice And Men at the Birmingham Rep yet another excellent example of the brilliant theatre produced right here in the UK’s second city. It might not be for everyone with its slow pacing, but with patience, you can discover some real intrigue in this new production.
Of Mice And Men plays at the Birmingham Rep until 8th April, then touring to Malvern Theatres, Theatre Royal Bath and Leeds Playhouse. Tickets for the Birmingham run from: https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/of-mice-and-men/
Photos by Mark Senior