More than 80 years after John Steinbeck's iconic novella Of Mice and Men was published it remains one of the most controversial and studied texts of the American literary canon.
Steinbeck later referred to his gritty, heart-breaking story of two men pursuing the American dream as 'a tricky little thing designed to teach me to write for the theatre' and The REP's production is more than worthy of the literary giant's masterpiece.
A neat performance of an enchanting folk ballad by the cast, with live accompaniment from a stage-side fiddle player grows in volume and transports the audience to 1930s Dust Bowl California as the story of hapless duo George Milton and Lennie Small unfolds.
William Rodell shines throughout as the intelligent but uneducated George who suffers his gentle giant pal Lennie's well-intentioned but inevitably troublesome follies as the two go in search of work to fund their dream - a piece of their own land they can live off in freedom.
The chemistry between Rodell's George and Kristian Phillips' Lennie is delightful; amusing and moving in equal measure. Phillips is excellent as the physically strong but mentally challenged Lennie; the very essence of the boy who loved something so much he hugged it to death.
The two find work at a ranch and set about earning enough money to fulfil their dream with the help of long-serving ranch hand Candy; played with a charming vulnerability by old pro Dudley Sutton. But just when it seems their plan is coming together Lennie's love of petting things lands him in a heap of trouble when an encounter with the wife of Curley (Saorise-Monica Jackson), the boss's ill-tempered and insanely jealous son, has disastrous results.
Ben Stott delivers an intense, if slightly jerky, performance as Curley while Jackson, making her professional stage debut, impresses as his discontented wife. Elsewhere Neil McKinven stands out as both the boss and the brash ranch hand Carlson, particularly in a touching but funny scene where he convinces the old man Candy to dispense with his ageing dog; played by the lovely Airedale Arthur, who didn't put a paw wrong.
Dave Fishley is memorable as the bitter stable buck Crooks, who is banished from living with the other workers for being black; nowhere in the piece are Steinbeck's messages about segregation and loneliness more apparent.
Characters not involved in scenes remained seated in character on the dimly lit edges of the stage; a neat touch which builds the atmosphere. And the few scene changes in the production are all orchestrated by cast members; choreographed extremely effectively to aid continuity.
As Lennie's well-meaning but disastrous actions finally land him in trouble he cannot escape, the story reaches its moving climax as a tearful George, played beautifully in the final scene by Rodell, is forced into one final act of friendship. The brevity of the second act leaves one wanting more but only serves to enhance the impact of poignant conclusion.
Steinbeck's themes of friendship, loneliness, dreams and the hopelessness of America's Great Depression are conveyed as effortlessly as he intended in Roxana Silbert's polished and atmospheric production. It's a tale about two friends but at the same time so much more.
Of Mice and Men runs at The REP until 13 February.
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