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,
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
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
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
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
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