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The Comedy of Errors

Theatre Review: The Grapes of Wrath

28 March 17 words: James Walker

There's plenty of wrath to go around in the latest production of The Grapes of Wrath...

The Grapes of Wrath

Please note: the review refers only to the first half of the production.

In 1939 John Steinbeck was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath. Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, it features a family of tenant farmers in Oklahoma who have defaulted on their bank loans, seen their crop destroyed by the dust bowls, and eventually have their farm repossessed. With nothing left they set off west on Route 66 to find work in California. This has particular implications for Tom Joad, as leaving Oklahoma represents a violation of his parole.

The production of this play couldn’t come at a more apt moment, given the millions of refugees fleeing Syria in search of ‘California’, only to end up in the Calais Jungle. Closer to home, zero hours contracts and temp agencies are spawning a ‘precariat generation’ for whom uncertainty has become the norm. And of course this was the week in which Theresa May signed and delivered Article 50. These are truly awful times, and Steinbeck’s novel is a curt reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Given the topicality of issues, the strength of Steinbeck’s writing, and the fact that Frank Galati’s stage adaptation won a Tony Award in 1990, I couldn’t wait to see Abbey Wright’s production. It turned out that I couldn’t wait to leave, exiting at the interval – something I’ve never done before.

I knew I was going to hate it the minute three cast members started to prance about on stilts with ‘Cars R Us’ emblazoned on their backs. Instead of embracing these presumably witty semiotic allusions to the text, I wanted them to fall over and break their necks. Then, just as I was starting to feel an inkling of emotion towards a character, the cast would climb up on set and start playing electric guitar and singing. And don’t get me started on the time wasted shuffling the set around to accommodate what felt like hundreds of actors fannying about on stage. It was like The Waltons meet So Solid Crew.

Steinbeck is one of the greatest writers of all time. All you need is a minimalist set and his dialogue will do the rest. Instead this production felt claustrophobic; consequently I felt nothing for the characters and I certainly didn’t feel the Biblical flow of life and death and survival that is so central to the novel.

I am sure that there are lots of people who will enjoy the novelty of this production. But I hated it. And my friend that I took with me, who doesn’t usually go to the theatre, told me never to invite him to the theatre again. This concerns me the most as this production could alienate lots of causal theatre goers, and offset the good work done recently by Stephen Lowe’s Touched, which smashed box office records.

If this production is to work, the guitars need to be scrapped and the show should stick to instruments more befitting of the period. The hand saw played with a bow is really evocative, and the deliberately out of tune notes work really well. The saw doesn’t dominate the theatre like a guitar, and so enables the audience to think and reflect on what’s going on. And that is what was missing from this production. It had so much going on there was no space left for the imagination.

The Grapes of Wrath is at Nottingham Playhouse from Tuesday 28 March to Saturday 8 April 2017.

Nottingham Playhouse

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