Right: Peter Muir as Lennie (sitting) and Christopher Balkin as George. Photo by Nick O'Sullivan
Of Mice and Men
By John Steinbeck
Directed by Alex Lanham
Brisbane Arts Theatre
Season: 4 January to 18 February. Running time: two hours 20 minutes including interval. Bookings on (07) 3369 2344.
What a great start to the Brisbane Arts Theatre’s first semi-pro season. The production was tight, finely acted and excellently directed by Alex Lanham. It gave the audience an evening of high drama, suspense, great pathos, a hint of comedy and it never flagged for a second.
John Steinbeck, to my mind, was one of the greatest 20th century writers. He had a minimalist, journalistic style that created characters with little description and strong dialogue. Of Mice and Men is one of my favourite novels. In fact when I was around 18 and had no idea there was already a play I started to adapt it myself.
It was simple really: just copy the dialogue! I never did finish it, but Steinbeck did and what a stage play he produced. His language is superb and succinct, but it takes a bunch of talented actors to bring the characters to life. Lanham had exactly that and every character on stage was believable, even from a time so long ago in a country so foreign – the farmland of the US during the Great Depression. I also must add that the American accents were spot on and never dropped once.
The story follows the lives of odd couple George and Lenny. Lenny is a rambling giant of a man with a tender heart and the simple brain of a small child. He loves small animals but does not know his own strength and as he pets them they tend to die. George, the dreamer is his keeper, bonded by family.
When they arrive for a new job trouble is looking for George and Lennie. The motley crew of itinerant workers are fine, but the boss’s son Curley, a truculent, arrogant man, played well by Michael Stent, has a wife with a roving eye and he takes instant dislike to the two travelling companions.
The playing out of the resulting dramas was nerve stretching and taut with tension.
The casting for the two lead rolls was perfect. Christopher Balkin was the hungry, pugnacious George. He was immensely strong and with body language and words created a memorable character. Peter Muir was gentle killer, Lennie. To play a retarded character successfully is one of the most difficult. It is so easy to drift into parody or caricature but Muir was just superb; his speech pattern was tonally convincing and his slow and clumsy movements matched his speech. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment he was on stage.
The pair tugged at the heartstrings as they fought against adversity.
The protagonist in all this was the lone female in the cast, Curley’s wife, again here was a character played very convincingly, this time by Nicole Payton-Betts. She had exactly the right naiveté and uneducated mind of a country girl from Steinbeck country. Her action when she was alone with Lennie, helped the feeling of helpless inevitability of the scene.
The workers, with John Bennetto as Candy, Jon Darbro as Slim, Kieran Evans as Carlson and Ash Guy as Whit, all with great accents, added greatly to the production. So too did Doug Harper as the imposing Boss.
Special mention goes to Gabriel Keane who played the half crippled Negro Crooks. He was so convincing and had one of the best African-American accents I have ever heard on a local stage.
On top of all those splendid performances were some top technical accomplishments. Kiel Gailor’s set fitted the story perfectly with the simple wooden planks, bunk beds, and hay bales. Francesca Walker’s costuming too was excellent and perfectly in period and situation.
Topping it all was the lighting and sound plots from Sarah Gooda and James Marsden.
Altogether it was a slick production of professional standard that blended all the elements to create a winner of a play.