The American classic Of Mice and Men was Artistic Director, Peter Doran’s choice for the Torch Theatre’s Autumn production and his final drama before retirement. The tale of friendship, loneliness and the search American Dream seemed the perfect selection for a final production, to showcase just what Doran and the Torch team are capable of, before the switch to incoming director Chelsey Gillard in 2023. The fact that the novel is still studied in schools across the UK, highlights how Steinbeck’s tale is as prevalent in today’s society as it was when it was first published in the 1930’s. Themes of economic migration, exclusion, friendship, loneliness, sexism, racism and attitudes to disability as well as the search for a better life are recognised across the world today, particularly in rural Wales.
This production showcases the flair we have come to expect from Doran, with a welcome return of Torch regulars Dion Davies, Jâms Thomas, Dudley Rogers, Samuel Freeman and Gwydion Rhys alongside upcoming talent in the shape of Mark Henry-Davies, Alexandria McCauley, Chris Bianchi and Shameer Seepersand.
A particular authentic move was to see members of the cast on stage on entering the auditorium, already in character and going about their every day lives on the farm. As the audience took their seats and waited for the production to start, they were already immersed in the world of Steinbeck’s novel.
When the lights went off, there were seconds to contemplate what might be instore, for those that know the rich and successful history of 45 years of Torch Theatre productions, the majority under Doran’s direction. For those who may not know the tale, or the form of the many previous productions, there was time to take a breath.
George and Lenny are first captured against the backdrop of a hazy sky and land outline, appearing like a still of a Steinbeck novel cover, immediately bringing any readers back to the original story, setting the scene for what’s to come. As we first see them talking and camping by the river, we are drawn in to their connection and their friendship and begin to understand the relationship between them. We watch George smile patiently as Lenny asks questions, wanting him to repeat the same story of their imagined future over and over, Lenny’s gentle playfulness as he grins and guffaws at George’s words, his puzzled frown at the revelation that the mice he keeps don’t survive – the sheepish look as he opens his hand to reveal his capture.
The scene is set for the unravelling that is to come, we are fully aware of Lenny’s reliance on George and the sometimes burden that Lenny creates for his friend and guide. These are two men just chasing the American dream, a better life, to live off the ‘fat of the land.’ This is a story of hope and desire.
Jâms Thomas (George) and Mark Henry-Davies (Lenny) work brilliantly together and their connection on stage is lovely to watch. There’s a sad delight in watching them navigate the world, with George speaking for Lenny and watching out for him, even when it gets him into trouble. Mark portrays Lenny straight from the pages of the novel, never breaking character, even when he is in the background or facing away from the audience. Every simple movement, to the way his face lights up at the sight of a dog, to the curious sense of desire when he sees Curly’s wife for the first time. Thomas portrays George to great effect, showing his kindness but also frustration at being the one to look out for Lenny. He tells the farm boss that Lenny is his brother, and in a way, this is the truth. Even down to the final moments of the play, we see George’s conflicted feelings as he leads Lenny away just like Candy’s old dog that has become too much of a burden to be saved.
Gwydion Rhys (The Wood, One Man, Two Guvnor’s) stands out in his role as Curly, the boss’s son. Hot tempered and aggressive, he spends much of his time looking for his wife and questioning the motives of the workers. He meets his match with Lenny. Gwydion excels in this role, presenting Curly just as he appears in Steinbeck’s creation, storming about the stage, shouting and spitting in the farm labourers faces and using his fists wherever he can.
Adrianna is striking as Curly’s wife. A graduate from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, she is a natural to the stage, and takes to the role easily. Adrianna manages to portray her character with just the right amount of empathy, after all she too is searching for the American dream. She alludes to missed opportunities to be a star and a longing to wear beautiful clothes. She ultimately wants someone to listen to her, just like Lenny. Yet their desire and curiosity for something more leads them both into tragedy.
It’s good to see Dion Davies back in drama at the Torch, being best remembered as the Dame in the Torch pantomime. He takes on two roles here – the farm boss and Carlson. Davies is a well-established actor on stage and screen and it shows in his confident performances.
Chris Biancci is new to the Torch stage and impresses in the role of Slim as does Shameer Seepersand who plays Crooks, the stable buck.
Samuel Freeman returns to the Torch (he was in Cinderella in 2021) for his role as farmhand Whit, a minor character but effective as all minor characters are in Steinbeck’s work. His reference to a letter in a newspaper from a farmhand they once knew, echoes the dream they are all holding on to. Of a better life outside the world of migrant farm work.
Dudley Rogers is Candy, a farm hand who lost his hand in an agricultural accident and finds comfort in his old dog. He joins the two new men in their dream of a better life but his excitement cannot be tamed when Lenny lets slip of their plans to Crooks and enthusiasm spreads. Carlton cruelly takes Candy’s only real form of love and connection.
The set, designed by regular Torch Theatre set designer Sean Crowley, is impressive. The entire stage is a full-scale interior of a barn, complete with table and chairs and bunk beds where the farm labourers sleep. It also serves as a hay barn, where Slim’s puppies sleep and Crook stays – highlighting the racist treatment of black workers during the period. At the forefront of the stage, is a narrow stretch of water, which glistens and reflects the faces of the lead characters during the production, foreshadowing the tragedy to come. The complexity and scale of the set highlights the work of the tech team behind the scenes, particularly with the use of the fly tower.
Ceri James’ lighting is effective, highlighting corners of the stage for key scenes, particularly during Crooks and Lenny’s scene together, and casting shadows of George and Lenny on the walls as they move around the stage, creating an eerie foreshadowing.
The costumes add a great authenticity to the production, as do the accents of the actors, rooting the viewer straight into the period and location. The workers wear shirts, dungarees and boots while the boss wears a leather and sheepskin coat and cowboy hat. Curly’s wife stands out among the neutral tones of the men, with her blazing red dresses, shoes and lips. Even Marloe, Doran’s dog (and perhaps the most popular cast member) who plays the part of Candy’s pet, has her own costume to wear.
There’s no doubt that this final dramatic production of Peter Doran’s is one of his most powerful yet. The Torch Theatre team have taken an incredibly moving story, with greatly detailed characters and turned it into a stage play with depth and heart. In the final moments between George and Lenny, as the world seems to close in on them, their dreams fading before their eyes, the audience was stunned into silence. A fantastic production by a great team. We can only hope that under new direction the Torch can continue to enthral, inspire and captivate audiences for another 45 years.
Main image Peter Doran