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Kelly shines in a theatrical tour-de-force

Review by David Munro

OF MICE and Men was written by John Steinbeck as a novel in the thirties and later turned by him into a play, which was performed with great success in New York, in 1937, and in London, in 1939.

It deals with problem of work in The Depression and, in particular, with that of the itinerant class, who sought what work they could get in farmlands of Central America.

George and Lennie are two such migrant workers, who arrive at a ranch in California.

Lennie is a loveable, but mentally retarded giant, who does not know his own strength and unwittingly kills the animals he loves to pet.

His companion, George, has adopted the burden of looking after Lennie and trying to make a life for them, which will ultimately enable them to settle down in their own farm, where Lennie can fulfil his dreams of looking after rabbits.

Lennie inadvertently kills the daughter-in-law of the ranch boss and George shoots him to save him from lynching or committal to an asylum.

I had always thought that Mathew Kelly was just another vacuous TV presenter, whose claim to fame rested on a programme, Stars in Your Eyes, which enabled members of the public to be transformed through the wizardry of television and make-up into the pop singer they most wished to emulate.

That is, until last night, when Mathew Kelly transformed himself into the lumbering halfwit, Lennie, at the Richmond Theatre.

It was a classic performance, both touching and powerful. Lennie can so easily, in the hands of a less competent actor, degenerate into mawkishness and embarrassment for the audience.

Not so for Mr Kelly. This was a performance to remember, convincing in delineating the simple childishness of the character while, at the same time, showing the underlying fear of life and what it could do to him.

One empathised with him and his longing to stroke things that enabled him to retreat from a world where people with his mental disability are treated with repugnance and lack of understanding.

The final denouement was therefore as horrifying and as poignant as Steinbeck intended, leaving the shattered audience nothing to do but applaud vigorously a superb piece of acting and theatre.

Mr Kelly's performance was matched by George Costigan's George, the carer (as he would now be called) of this pathetic hulk of humanity.

His portrayal of a simple, kindly man faced, and at times unable to cope, with the burden of looking after the shambolic Lenny was sincere and touching.

His final act of mercy came as a shattering coup de theatre, the perfect climax of a play transformed by two great performances into an evening of power and pathos.

Steinbeck knew the people about whom he was writing and had the theatrical acumen to surround his two principles with well-written supporting parts for the denizens of the ranch where Lenny and George apply for work.

David Sterne, as Candy, the old hanger on, who shares George and Lennie's dream of an idyllic future in a small homestead, was admirable, as was Julian Prothero, as Slim the muleteer who understands George's ambivalent attitude toward Lennie and goes out of his way to sympathise and help him cope with the problem.

Nick Stringer and Tom Silburn, as the ranch boss and Curley, another ranch worker, played their parts on the periphery of the central drama, unobtrusively and with conviction.

John Flitcroft as Slim, the boss's son, and Joanne Moseley, as his wife, who precipitate the final crisis, were perhaps a little too 'stagey' in their performances but in no way detracted from the overall pattern of the drama.

One of the pivotal scenes in the play is where Candy has to agree to allow Carlson, another ranch hand, to shoot his dog, as it is to old and decrepit to enjoy life anymore (which underscores George's action at the end of the play).

This was played with the appropriate understanding by Neil Phillips, as Carlson, and added one more brick to the evening's dramatic edifice.

The play was written in the segregated Thirties, and, as the black Crooks, the injured farm hand who taunts Lennie with the similarity of the treatment of blacks and the mentally incapacitated in that era, Tyrone Huggins splenetic performance emphasised the point Steinbeck was making, perfectly.

A great deal of credit must go to the director, Jonathan Church, who kept the action smooth and fast, and to Simon Higlett, whose unobtrusive simulations of the bunk house, barn and river bank set the scene perfectly.

But this a play which stands or falls on the credibility of Lenny and George and their relationship.

I do not have the play or the novel to hand, but my recollection is that Steinbeck leaves the question of their age open.

The original Lenny was played in 1937, by Broderick Crawford, who was 27 and George, by Wallace Ford who was 40, an age difference that could make their association less than innocent, as is hinted at by one of the characters, than it appears in this production.

In the original English production, in 1939, they were played, respectively, by Niall MacGinnis and John Mills, both of whom were in their twenties, which makes sense of the fact that George emphasises they were at school together.

Mathew Kelly and George Costigan play them as late-to-middle-aged men, which follows the precedent set by the film version with Lon Chaney Jnr. and Burgess Meredith and prove that age is immaterial, it is the problem that is ageless - how to make the Lennies of this world fit in.

Whilst Steinbeck's drastic ending is not one which can be readily advocated, it does make sense both against the background of the Thirties Depression and the characters, as played by Kelly and Costigan, who convince us this is the only solution at the time.

One hopes that these performances, and the play as a whole, will get a well-deserved transfer to the West End. If not, at least the audience at Richmond, and elsewhere on its tour, can be grateful that this production of mice and men did not 'gang agley', but proves that there is still life in the theatre and not just stars in your eyes!

Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck, Directed by Jonathan Church, Designed by Simon Higlett, Lighting by Tim Mitchell, WITH: George Costigan, Mathew Kelly, David Sterne, Nick Stringer, John Flitcroft, Joanna Moseley, Julian Prothero, Neil Phillips, Tom Silburn, Tyrone Huggins, Andy Chaplin, Philip Bulcock. Produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre in association with The Touring Consortium at Richmond Theatre, The Little Green, Richmond, Surrey. Tickets 020 8940 0088

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