In a quite fabulous opening scene, musical director and composer Heather Christian slowly walks barefoot through a swamp, intoning the harsh sounds of dustbowl America as she goes. Her discordant, folky motifs – which she’s called avant-Americana – continue as the ill-fated ranch workers George and Lennie plan their next move to an evocative on-stage soundtrack, played by characters who will shape Steinbeck’s tragic drama. Mark Rosenblatt, in his first show for the Playhouse after his role as studio associate at The National, makes some statement of intent in those first five minutes.
So it’s a real shame that this imaginative take on Of Mice And Men isn’t quite seen through: Christian’s contribution – other than playing Curley’s Wife – quickly becomes (very) incidental music, and for all Rosenblatt’s stated desire to “explode” this classic play, in the second half in particular it becomes rather wordy and straightforward.
Still, Henry Pettigrew and Dyfrig Morris both adeptly tease out the ways in which the scheming George and not-so-gentle giant Lennie dream of better futures. As the irritable Curley and the more kindly Slim, John Trindle and Andy Clark are both completely convincing as Californians who have lived their lives in the dust and grime.
But what will remain in the memory is Christian’s score – however underused – and a quite brilliant set designed by Max Jones. The depictions of the wide-open expanses of California, with barley fields, a working windmill and tractor, are mesmerising, and with Tim Mitchell’s lighting offering a genuinely filmic atmosphere, all the elements are here for a production which can pick away at the problems at the heart of the American Dream. It’s just disappointing Rosenblatt doesn’t utilise them slightly more.