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Of Mice and Men review (Seymour Centre, Sydney)

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John Steinbeck’s stage adaptation of his own legendary 1937 novel Of Mice and Men, is a superb piece of drama — a taut, well-paced character study full of heartache for those cast aside by society. In fact, it’s such a successful adaptation it feels as though it was a story dreamt up purely for the stage, and director Iain Sinclair has given the piece a sensitive and beautifully understated production for Sport for Jove.

The story of two migrant ranch workers, George (Anthony Gooley) and Lennie (Andrew Henry), who move from job to job in California during the Great Depression while dreaming of a self-determined future, still resonates in 2015. We live in a world where previously prosperous nations are adjusting to an age of austerity and reconsidering how resources are allocated. The questions which Steinbeck raises about what we do with those members of societies we decide we no longer “need” is as relevant as it’s ever been.

George constantly promises his best friend Lennie, who has a mental disability, that the two will soon have saved up enough money to quit their nomadic existence. Lennie is convinced that the pair will find their own small parcel of land where he can tend the rabbits and “live off the fatta the land”.

Of course, Lennie, a big, hulking, kind-hearted man, doesn’t understand his own strength, and he becomes a ticking time bomb when placed in an environment where he needs to live alongside other rough ranch workers. The only thing that could possibly get him through is George.

The relationship between Gooley’s George and Henry’s Lennie is a slow burn — there’s a simple connection between the two that feels entirely organic and not imposed through overt dramatic gestures. After you’ve spent two hours with these two actors and seen how they interact, it’s impossible not to feel emotionally invested in their friendship.

Gooley brings an absolute steadiness to his role — he’s become almost a father to Lennie by necessity, and there’s an underlying sense that he’s spent a lot of his youth on his best friend. There’s a world-weariness to his characterisation, suggesting he’s spent years fighting against his own youthful instincts to ensure both can survive. But his love for Lennie is so strong and true that it always feels like a worthwhile sacrifice.

Henry brings a loveable charisma to his performance as the would-be gentle giant Lennie. After stacking on 20 kilos for the role, Henry stomps around the stage and is constantly fighting against his instincts to stay within the lines. His take on the role is particularly heartbreaking when he’s trying and failing to play a part that he’s simply incapable of.

But all of the performances are well-balanced and coloured, from Laurence Coy’s Candy to Charles Allen’s Crooks. Anna Houston is particularly strong as Curley’s wife, which is a rather difficult character. She brings a desperate loneliness to her performance, and even though the gender politics are occasionally suspect (there are moments which feel a little like victim blaming in 2015), it’s a take on the role that leaves the judgement entirely to the audience.

Sinclair’s production unfolds on a simple but striking set by Michael Hankin, which perfectly evokes an American ranch. The floor is covered with hay and dirt while four tall timber poles dominate the space. With Sian James-Holland’s extraordinary and moody lighting design, and the slight smell of hay drifting through every now and then, this Of Mice and Men transports you far away from the small Reginald Theatre.

Sinclair digs deep into the text and pulls out a brilliantly shaped piece of theatre which works hard but feels easy. Too often we see revivals of classics and are left with the question: “why this play at this point in time?” This is a play which answers that question with absolute clarity, is full of humanity and shouldn’t be missed.

Of Mice and Men is at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney until August 1. Featured image by Marnya Rothe

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