Theatre review: Of Mice and Men, King's Theatre, Edinburgh

SCOTLAND has known some economic pain, over the last two generations; but nothing, I think, to match the suffering and near-starvation that accompanied America's Great Depression of the 1930s.

Kristian Phillips as Lennie and William Rodell as George. Picture: Contributed
Kristian Phillips as Lennie and William Rodell as George. Picture: Contributed

Of Mice and Men | Rating: **** | King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The writer John Steinbeck and the musician Woody Guthrie were the two great poets of that Depression, capturing its human cost with a vividness that seemed to grow out of the dusty earth itself. And so it’s more than fitting that Roxana Silbert’s powerful Birmingham Rep production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, now on the road courtesy of the Touring Consortium, begins with a chorus of Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, sung by a cast which always seems more like an ensemble telling a story that still urgently needs to be told, than a company offering a backdrop to the two leading performances, strong as they are.

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For the truth about Lennie and George, Steinbeck’s twin heroes, is that they have no land to call their own, a plight they share with every other character in the play. George is a hard-working guy in his thirties, Lennie is a big, simple lad from the same small home-town, for whom George takes responsibility; but Lennie’s combination of massive size and strength and baby-like mental development has caused problems in the past, so that when they arrive as casual labourers on a new ranch in southern California, George is already on edge, determined to avoid trouble.

The source of the play’s tragedy, though, lies not only in the other men’s hostility to Lennie as someone “different”, but in something even more heartbreaking – the resentment, envy, and desperate, painful hope aroused by the obvious affection between George and Lennie, and by the strength it gives them in hoping and planning for the day when they will reach for that almost-impossible dream, a little place of their own.

In Silbert’s beautiful, fluent production – with excellent, wide-sky design by Liz Ascroft, and fine music and sound by Suspect Culture veteran Nick Powell – all this is captured in a near-perfect central performance from Kristian Phillips as Lennie, with William Rodell as a fine, supportive George. And if some of the American accents are a little doubtful – and the play’s abrupt ending could be handled with a surer touch – this remains an unforgettable piece of theatre about how human pain reproduces itself, as those who have lost all hope turn on those who still cherish it, and try to crush the longing they can no longer bear, for the simple, decent human life they fear they will never have.

• King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances on Saturday