Reviews: Of Mice and Men & Steel Magnolias

Of Mice And Men

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until March 17

 

Steel Magnolias

Dundee Rep

Until March 10

 

Reviews by Mark Brown

 

We can see in the great, humanist American writers John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller brother artists. In their lifetimes they shared a mutual respect and admiration. In their work, they wrote with Promethean courage and Euripidean authority against the poisoning of the American Dream. It is something of a masterstroke, therefore, that the Lyceum should call upon its associate artist, director John Dove (creator of a string of fine Miller productions), to direct Of Mice And Men, Steinbeck’s powerful play of drifting farm labourers in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

   From the moment George (a big-hearted dreamer) and Lennie (a man mountain with the mental age of a young child) set foot in their latest place of work, the atmosphere is as premonitory as that of any Greek tragedy. As the men settle – or, rather, unsettle – on the farmstead, their friendship and solidarity baffles their co-workers. Everyone else has been individuated by the social Darwinism of the capitalist crisis. Nowhere are the raw and brutal class relations clearer than in the men’s fear of the jealous rage of Curley (the vicious son of the boss) in the face of the flirtatiousness of his lonely young wife.

   As the play moves inexorably towards its genuinely classical denouement, Dove’s production proves to be as handsome, sure-footed and faithful as any of his Millers. William Ash and Steve Jackson are brilliantly cast as George and Lennie, combining an absolutely convincing, almost Beckettian sense of co-dependency with the inevitable pathos of Lennie’s innocence, beset on all sides by the dangers of an unforgiving society.

   There are strong performances across the piece, not least from Liam Brennan (as experienced, and fundamentally decent, farmhand, Slim); although one might have wished for a slightly more subtle, less hyperbolically agitated performance from Garry Collins (Curley). Colin Richmond’s technically ingenious set, which is poised superbly between naturalism and impressionism, gives the perfect visual expression to another excellent Lyceum staging of an American classic.

   There’s a very different America in Dundee Rep’s latest offering, Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, the tragicomic play which spawned the famous 1989 movie starring Dolly Parton. As Dundee’s only producing theatre, the Rep tries to be all things to all people. Associate director Jemima Levick (who is, surely, a strong candidate for the artistic director’s job, now that the incumbent, James Brining, has announced that he’s taking over at the West Yorkshire Playhouse), has proved herself adaptable to the demands of the more populist element of the company’s eclectic programming.

   From the outset of her latest production – in which much of the overwhelmingly female audience claps along to the strains of Parton’s Nine To Five – we know what we’re getting. This tale of female solidarity (between rich and poor, Baptist and Methodist) in a Louisiana beauty salon lays on the country and western sentimentality as regularly as Truvy Jones (Emily Winter ticking all the boxes in the Parton role) sprays on the hair product.

   The plight of diabetic, would-be mother Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie (Natalie Wallace on fine form) points resolutely towards a conclusion which does pathos, melodrama and comedy in a moment. Rippling with sitcom gags and bold characterisations, and boasting the talents of the doyenne of Scottish popular theatre Barbara Rafferty, Levick has created a production which does exactly what it says on the hairspray tin.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 26, 2012

© Mark Brown

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