The novella Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is a staple in UK GCSE English exams due to its themes of loneliness, hopes, and power in 1930’s America. The Birmingham Rep theatre attempted to make this timeless story relevant to a 2023 audience by targeting their casting towards disabled and neurodivergent performers for the role of Lennie, a mentally disabled character. William Young delivered a powerful performance, while the ensemble cast was mostly strong, especially in their singing and movement. Puppetry was also a welcome addition to the production.
The story follows the unlikely friendship between George and Lennie, two migrant ranch workers in California during the Great Depression. Lennie is mentally disabled and relies on George to take care of him. The two dream of owning their own ranch and working for themselves, but their plans are constantly derailed by their circumstances and the actions of the other ranch workers.
Iqbal Khan, an Associate Director at the Birmingham Rep, directed this production, creating a Great Depression-era world. The energy of the production can drag at times, but the second act manages to regain some of the lost energy, especially as the climax nears. The minimalist set designed by Ciarán Bagnall, of a wooden diamond on the floor with a huge hanging wooden setpiece from above, was breathtaking and served as a constant reminder of the loneliness and poverty the characters face. The lighting designed by Bagnall complemented the production’s quiet plainness, although it occasionally reduced the energy of the production too much.
The performances are mostly strong. Maddy Hill’s small role as Curley’s Wife (the only female in this production) is played extremely well and she relishes the opportunity to shine with what little she has. Edward Judge provides an excellent antagonistic performance as Carlson. Other performances in the text are less successful. It is, unfortunately, very difficult to sympathise with many characters in the play. Tom McCall’s portrayal of George as Lennie’s friend/carer in particular makes the friendship between the two difficult to believe. Potentially a misdirection of a clearly talented actor.
The themes of sexism and racism felt underdeveloped in this production, as if more could have been made of them in light of 2023’s continuing issues with ableism. The original text is massacred in this version of the play, brushing over the nuanced treatment of key social issues in Steinbeck’s text. Characters feel underdeveloped and sympathy for any character is hard to grasp. However, the climax of the show was brilliantly staged and developed, with a build-up of sound and light heightening the tension. Despite occasional lapses in energy, Of Mice and Men at the Birmingham Rep was yet another excellent example of the brilliant theatre produced in the UK’s second city. With patience, real intrigue can be discovered in this new production.