“Now what do you suppose is eating them two?” is the final line delivered in Steinbeck’s 1937 classic. Though we never hear it in the Black Box Theatre Company’s adaptation of the Great Depression-era short story, fans of the book will recognise its resonance echoing all the way through this powerful production.
Mike Lockley’s weary and cynical George Milton plays paternal friend to Ed Barry’s mentally disabled and cumbersome Lennie Small. George and Lennie travel from one ranch-hand job to another, forming an unlikely and confusing bond. George is sharp, quick to anger and protective while Lennie fails to realise his own strength as his fondness for “furry things” end up in him crushing a pet mouse and dog.
Having freshly escaped from a job that went sour, the pair sign up to work at a ranch overseen by the short-tempered Curley (Mike Sanders) and his flirtatious wife (Lucy Litchfield), and discover that Lennie’s obsession with all things soft and playful lead to a harrowing conclusion.
Adapted by Ian Moore, the production is a minimalist affair with little or no elaborate props or costumes. A makeshift dog is created from a rolled up jacket, and characters simply wait visibly offstage with their backs turned when not part of the scene.
Such minimalism simply draws attention to the solitary and philosophical rut that the men on the ranch find themselves in. When discussing dreams of the future over a game of cards, Crooks (Shawn John) the black stable-hand muses: “Just like heaven. Everybody wants a little piece of land. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head”. The message is that each man has his own hopes and dreams, and yet so few are able to realise them.
In a fit of eagerness George and Lennie think they are within reach of theirs when they conspire with the handyman Candy (Kevin Thomas) to buy out a farm and live together. Yet as the narrative progresses, their dream unravels and whatever hairs breadth of hope that the two men had soon fades. Barry’s Lennie is particularly impressive as he perfectly captures the essence of the bear-like, kindhearted and undeniably vulnerable man at odds with the cynicism of the world around him.
The Continental have a reputation for arranging excellent cultural events, and this production is no exception. Steinbeck’s prose is powerfully translated into a production that has the audience transfixed by the engaging tale.
Today’s evening show is sold out but there are still tickets for the 2pm matinee as well as Friday’s evening performance. Tickets are £5 in advance or £7 on the door, and can be bought online here, from the Continental bar (01772 499425) or from Preston Tourist Information (01772 253731).