The Grapes of Wrath, Nuffield Theatre Southampton and touring

ABBEY Wright’s production of Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has everything  you might want from a 2017 production – colour-and-gender-blind casting, community actors with their many friends and family whooping from the auditorium, full frontal nudity, audience getting splashed with water, “new” music played on unusual instruments, disability inclusion …  even a set that could have been based on an airport smoking lounge.

It’s a tribute to a great novel that the story manages to shine through all these trendy screens, but at times in the Nuffield production, Steinbeck only JUST makes it.

The directer spotted early that the story of the Okie farmers forced out by the greedy banks and trekking across America to find work and salvation in the fertile valleys of California was particularly relevant in these nervous and threatening days.

Four generations of the Joad family, Okla­homa sharecroppers who have suffered years of drought and loss of crops, make the long journey across plains and mountains in a broken down jalopy. Some of them die en route. But the land of milk and honey they reach at the other side of the Rockies turns out to be an illusion, peopled by thousands of similarly desperate people at the mercy of orchard owners forcing down already minimal wages.

This co-production by the Nuffield, Nott­ing­ham Playhouse, Northampton Royal and Derngate and West Yorkshire Play­house, has a core of professional actors and community company numbering 62, some of whom appear in each of the venues.

The set, designed by Laura Hopkins, has two perspex boxes on casters, evidently very heavy from the effort needed to shift them, the tops of which are accessed by ladders with very widely spaced steps. Often the music is played on top of these boxes, necessitating the lifting of drums, double basses and even keyboards on and off the high platform tops.  Why?

The music of the Great Depression is well documented and recorded, so award winning composer Matt Regan turned his back on the plangent blues and rhythmic dances to produce a punk-meets-squeaky- gate score that had the community company at the dance contorted into awkward shapes, and the musician-actors howling and squawking.  Why? Why?

The “business” with the set and sound was so complex that it all but ruined the terrible but life-affirming climax of the play. But thanks to some powerful performances, notably by Molly Logan as Rose of Sharon, Julia Swift as her mother,  Andrew Squire as the hot-headed Tom Joad and Brendan Charleson as the preacher turned philosopher Casy, the bones of Steinbeck’s unforgettable story remain.

I was so looking forward to this production, but I simply cannot recommend it.


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