Back in Time… on the Road to Nowhere

Image by royharryman at Pixabay

Going to see Of Mice and Men at the Torch Theatre is like stepping back in time, in more ways than one.

Even before the actions starts, we’re treated to plaintive, downbeat Americana music reminiscent of the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou? and a tableau involving scruffy, forlorn-looking guys in dungarees, plaid shirts and Peaky Blinders caps, as they play cards, loaf around on bunkbeds, and constantly sweep up. The scene is very definitely set, and we’re already firmly in the Depression era before a word is spoken.

It seems historically redolent in a second way. In 2022 it rightly seems odd to see a play portrayed by eight characters who are white men, one black man, and a solitary woman. I guess this is how theatre used to be.

But this is distinguished director Peter Doran’s last major production before retirement from his role at the Torch, and he has chosen to revive a play that he first staged in the same space many years ago.

Despite all the harking back, the staging definitely has a modern twist. The front section of the stage features a stretch of river, which seamlessly forms a part of the action in certain scenes, and yet the rest of the time it’s not so intrusive that it bothers you that there shouldn’t be a river running through the bunkhouse or barn that’s hosting the scene. 

How do they pull this off? All I can say is, go and see the play!

Of Mice and Men is based on John Steinbeck’s novel. We follow George and Lennie, two down-at-heel losers, as they wander a dusty California looking for strenuous, low-paid work and living on dreams. We learn that they’ve been forced to flee from their previous job after Lennie was accused of molesting a young woman who had befriended him. But Lennie’s too naive and lives too much in his own world to fully understand what he’s done.

The action unfolds as they arrive at their next gig, and we quickly realise that everyone we come across is desperately sad, lonely and living on their own dreams of one kind or another, just like George and Lennie. 

I say action, but in fact not that much happens. We learn of people’s unfulfilled lives, their various escapist dreams, and the reality that those dreams are unattainable. And we find that Britain in 2022 is not so bad after all. Perhaps that’s the point.

As always with the Torch’s in-house productions, the cast are excellent, especially Jâms Thomas and Mark Henry-Davies as the main two characters. At one point, however, one couldn’t help thinking of the old saying about working with kids and animals… a very cute dog appears (he has to, it’s in the book) and while he’s on stage, the rest of the cast could have launched into a cancan for all the difference it would have made, because all eyes are on the dog. An audience member near me was moved to tears by his performance. The programme tells us the canine thespian is called Marloe, and he’s great, but I’m afraid Marloe’s the only miscast actor in the production – the script calls for an elderly, scruffy and disabled dog, which this one very definitely is not. 

Human or canine, no one has a happy ending in this story. The question is only how unhappy it will be for each individual character. Well, it’s set in the Depression, so perhaps anything else would be incongruous. But despite the depressing subject matter, the play does come to a dramatically satisfying conclusion, and the opening-night crowd sprang to their feet as one.

Peter Doran has given great service to the Torch over many years, and this production will be remembered as a fitting finale… well, unless you count Sleeping Beauty, coming on 16 December, which I’m sure will be as terrific as the Torch’s pantos always are.

While you’re there, don’t leave without visiting the current exhibition in the Torch’s art gallery, featuring the paintings of acclaimed local artist Tim Arthur. I was particularly struck by his Last Farewell: Belgian Trawlers Leave Milford Before Brexit, a poignant work but also a superbly composed painting. 

Of Mice and Men is at the Torch until Saturday 22 October. Tickets are selling fast.

Tim Arthur’s Last Farewell: Belgian Trawlers Leave Milford Before Brexit

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