GRITTY social realism is what John Steinbeck is famed for, but this Lyceum production tones down the nasty side of American ranch life at the expense of the emotional mechanics of the play.
In this classic story, adapted from the play-novella for the Broadway stage by Steinbeck himself, smart George and simple Lennie lay plans to escape from their life of odd-job ranch work by saving their wages and buying land of their own.
The production team of the Lyceum has created a gorgeous set for the show, all pinewood and strewn hay with attention to details like pin-ups on the walls of the bunkhouse. In a world where the lowest of the low live in towering follies bestrewn with antique books, however, it’s difficult to feel their fate is so terrible.
Attractive though it is, the set is an element in the production’s tendency to glamorise the story, giving it the tone of a lush period drama rather than a gritty slice of American life. The general squeamishness to deal with the unpleasant sides of the story spreads to the acting and costume design. The result is a rather flat.
Stars Steve Jackson and William Ash are at their best in scenes where the pair interact with the hostile characters around them together. Jackson, better known as Trevor Dean from Coronation Street, plays big guy Lennie with babyish charm. Ash, meanwhile, really brings out the tender side of George’s character.
In one particularly affective scene, George spills out his heart to ranch team leader Slim, confidently given a hard shell and a soft belly by Lyceum favourite Liam Brennan. The story about George and Lennie’s childhood together is both moving and characterising.
Unfortunately, the story-telling element of the play doesn’t work elsewhere. Each of the main characters shares their back story with one of the leads at length, who themselves spend an age picking apart their past failures and plotting their future together.
The show holds together, but its stories don’t come to life or pack the emotional punch they ought to.