For those unfamiliar with John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella Of Mice and Men, a strumming pre-show soundtrack accompanying the rustic bunkhouse staging (Bill Haycock, designer) plants Ad Astra audiences firmly in its Depression-era California setting. Lighting also warms us to the tender take at the heart of the story as we meet is main characters, displaced migrant ranch workers, the intelligent but uneducated George Milton (Patrick Shearer) and the bulky and strong, but intellectually disabled Lennie Small (Francis McMahon).
The relationship and back story of the cynical George and the childlike bear Lennie is soon revealed, cementing sentiment. The itinerant workers move from farm to ranch seeking opportunities to engage in casual labour, before quickly moving on when they encounter trouble. That trouble, it is soon apparent, tends to stem from Lennie’s fondness for stroking soft things (including pretty ladies’ dresses), together with his lack of awareness of his own brute strength. So, it is with a sense of foreboding that Lennie’s innocent view of the world is about to be corrupted.
Of Mice and Men is an affecting show and serves to reinforce its endurance as a classic text. The talented cast takes us to all edges of the character spectrum. Danny Brown steadies things as respected main mule team driver Slim, easily conveying the characters’ natural authority and empathy towards George and Lennie’s bond. As the boss’ bully of a son Curly, Andrew Lowe has a cocksure swagger that tells us about his persona even before he speaks.
The tough-love relationship between George and Lennie is moving. McMahon’s performance as Lennie is touching and dominant. Shearer’s approach to George’s character is intuitive, understated and viscerally charged with mumbles and pauses.
More than just being a story about its characters, Of Mice and Men is also a study of its era. Characters express the simple pleasures such a comfortable chair as much as their bigger dreams of self-determination. Curly’s unnamed wife (Caitlin Hill) dreams of better things, beyond the loneliness at the heart of her flirtatious interactions with the men on the ranch and ageing handyman Candy (Iain Gardiner). The latter, in turn, having lost his hand in an accident, fears for his future and so dreams of a life beyond the ranch.
Under Jesse Richardson’s direction, the story is well-paced. The passages of time are cleverly crafted. The confrontation of emotion is heightened by David Walters’ shadowed lighting and Ben Lynskey’s melancholic soundscape. Ad Astra has created an accessible, engaging and powerful piece of theatre.
Of Mice and Men is on at Ad Astra until 18th September, 2021.
For more of Meredith Walker’s theatre reviews, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane.