John Steinbeck's classic tale is not an easy one to transfer to the stage, its pervasive air of langour and loneliness set amidst the Californian Depression of the 1930s needs texture and time to weave its spell effectively. Simon Higlett's excellent set promises much as the spectacle of two itinerant farmworkers, one small and wiry, the other large and lumbering first appear framed by the luminous hues of a burnished orange sunset. It's a potent image that's reprised in the play's closing moments but the simple power of this is unfortunately not matched by Jonathon Church's production itself.
Joe McGann has taken over from Matthew Kelly as Lennie, a simple, gentle man who's unaware of his own dangerous physical power, a state of affairs bringing inevitable tragedy in its wake. His fellow traveller and friend is George, a smart man who glimpses the half-life lying ahead yet sustains Lennie's vision of an independent farm life knowing the chances of its fruition are palpably small. These men are en route to another in a long line of temporary jobs, hired hands working back-breaking hours for little pay.
Andrew Schofield is persuasive in his role as George, torn between the desire for complete independence and Lennie's need of a protective mentor. McGann is generally quietly convincing too, though poignancy is often squandered and this undermines the central dynamic of this pivotal relationship. The real satisfaction though comes from some of the supporting performances- Julian Protheroe's beautifully measured Slim- the reliable lynchpin of the ranch - and Sean Baker's elderly Candy, in whom the seeds of desperation are clearly visible. These are men clutching at any possibility of a brighter future but the sheer ennui of the environment they inhabit is not strongly enough evoked and without this the pathos of the final scene doesn't have a chance to fully engage the audience's sympathy.