Stuart Quigley as Whit and Tom McCall as GeorgeCiaran Bagnall with permission for Varsity

Iqbal Khan’s Of Mice and Men brings Steinbeck’s slow-burning, quietly intense novel to life - an exposition of the cultural experiences of people whom society is not built to serve.

We enter the hyper-masculine setting of 1930s Depression-era US. It’s made clear that George and Lennie’s primary motivation is to find work — a constant, pertinent reminder of the strained epoch in which the play is set. George and Lennie proceed with caution, as Lennie’s disability has landed them in trouble before, and their dialogue often returns to a longing for a different reality — a utopia where they can both live freely. Khan’s staging makes for brilliant storytelling: each character is vibrant and spirited in their own right, and the scenes generally move with smooth pacing and direction.

“Inclusive casting added a heartbreakingly personal touch”

The actors were complimented by a dynamic set consisting of wooden beams, crates, copper poles, hay bales, bed frames — and an overhead abstract wooden piece which tipped halfway through the play, evoking a slanted wooden roof but also effectively disorienting the scene. Technical aspects of this production were overall outstanding: haze and side lighting gave each scene a dark, gloomy atmosphere, evoking the Californian heat while creating an ever-present discomfort that reflected the social tensions of the scenes. Costume was to the period: unkempt plaids and denim for the male workers provided a valuable contrast to Curley’s Wife’s clean and feminine dresses and neat, pin-curled hair.

William Young and Tom McCall’s outstanding performances as Lennie and George respectively engaged with and led us through their experiences. McCall retained the quick wit and control of a man in charge, but also encapsulated some of George’s more conflicted moments — and rightly did not earn my sympathy for his angrier and more misogynistic moments. Young’s Lennie was sensitive and vulnerable, and through his interactions with characters such as Curley and the Boss he perfectly displayed the internal conflict caused by a misunderstanding society insensitive to his particular needs; the movement direction of his final interaction with Curley’s Wife (Maddy Hill) was particularly poignant. Young himself has learning disabilities, and it was refreshing to see this discussed in the programme. This inclusive casting, a move from traditional productions, added a heartbreakingly personal touch.

“Technical aspects of this show were overall outstanding”

However, the play also contained elements which fall flat before a modern audience. Curley’s Wife, played by Maddy Hill, exposes the suffocatingly patriarchal epoch in which the play is set. Hearing the nicknames “tart” and “bitch”, and accusations of her possessing the scandalous ‘eye’, I quickly lost sympathy for most male characters for their treatment of her. Curley’s Wife has ambition and aspiration, and is confined to the prison of being a rural housewife; her beauty and charm are weaponised against her, and her attempt to break free from the masculine hell-scape around her delivers her to her fate. The play approaches this interaction between femininity and disability with suitable caution; the tragedy comes from both Lennie and Curley’s Wife meeting the same fate while the masculine, neurotypical, white structure which stifles them lives on. The harrowing climactic moment is intensified by Khan’s technical and staging choices, creating an anxious and ominous atmosphere for the culmination of the play.


Mountain View

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There were also a few scenes which may have benefitted from slower pacing to increase the poignancy of the moment, such as Curley’s reaction to his wife’s death — and a few which could have benefitted from quicker dialogue responses to increase the tension or humour, particularly with Candy’s scenes. However, this production still tells an intense and brilliant story, engaging the audience from start to finish and creating relationships and characters which are complex and slow-burning.

Of Mice and Men is showing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from Wednesday 19th April to Saturday 22nd April 2023