Of Mice and Men: National Theatre Live

One word: wow. If this production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is this good recorded and shown on a cinema screen, I can only imagine how incredible the atmosphere and tension in the room must have been live on Broadway.

The play of course follows George (James Franco) and Lennie (Chris O’Dowd) as they arrive at a new ranch for a new job. Lennie is mentally disabled but hugely strong and often gets into trouble due to his love of stroking soft things – including mice, puppies and ladies’ dresses. They enter acute dramas already in play at the ranch, including Curly’s new wife acting ‘like a tart’ and inciting arguments, but stick together with their big dream of one day owning and tending their own land.

The play starts small as George and Lennie settle down for the night before arriving at the ranch the next morning. Their conversation reveals a lot about them and their dynamic and sets up everything necessary for the rest of the story, while in a minimalistic set using only a small river for help.

In this production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, Franco and O’Dowd pull emotional strings immediately, as George gets mad and raises his voice towards his friend which is quite uncomfortable to watch, and Lennie cowers and threatens to run away and live in a cave.

O’Dowd is not known for being a huge physical presence from his previous roles, which include the tall but weedy Roy in The IT Crowd, but he truly becomes Lennie here, with such an impressive emotional range and a hunch that shows the character’s reluctance to fill such a vast space and attract attention.

It is unsurprising that the Irish actor made audience members sob. What sort of monster wouldn’t at least well up in response to this performance?

Franco also has a lot of emotional drive but his acting seems a lot more technical. No matter, for the two leads play off each other, and indeed the rest of the cast, to create relentless emotional troughs and peaks together.

It was interesting in this National Theatre Live screening to notice that the American audience, filmed on the show’s final night, laughed outrageously at some of Lennie’s little jokes, but the English audience in the cinema didn’t react to anything nearly so vociferously. Perhaps there are different degrees of comfort in response to this mentally disabled man, or maybe it’s just the different thrill and interaction of a live performance.

A nice touch for the cinema screening was the interval documentary, with Shapiro, Franco and O’Dowd speaking about the characters and the journey they go on during this play which only takes place over just a few days. It’s just a bit jarring to see clips from scenes only just screened when there’s half the play to go, but it filled the time nicely.

Overall this is an acting tour de force, from the smaller parts as well as the two leads, but of course this does mean you will leave the auditorium with a very heavy heart. Take tissues.

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