Of Mice And Men, Savoy Theatre, London

The mouse that bored
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The Independent Culture

Until they do Ivor Novello at the Bush, Of Mice and Men at the Savoy is likely to remain a landmark mismatch of venture and venue. The silver art deco jewel-box is a bizarre frame for John Steinbeck's 1937 tale about contemporary Californian bindle stiffs - itinerant, homeless workers who carried all their possessions on their backs.

As it turns out, the luxury package doesn't keep us from appreciating the virtues of the story, but there are other, more damaging disparities about it - not least that between Steinbeck's reach and his grasp.

Though the characters complain about a bad-smelling ancient dog and the reek of a woman's dime-store perfume, there is a far stronger stench that permeates the play: the odour of sanctity. The novel on which it is based has long been a set text, in England and America, for a piety so unexceptionable it makes Dickens sound like a bomb-throwing anarchist.

On their feet 11 hours a day, the farmhands blow their wages on a monthly visit to a whorehouse; in the absence of labour laws and welfare programmes, their future means only a quick death or a slow one. If they work hard and behave themselves, the farm manager tells his new recruits, they will get pie.

The promise recalls the old union song, and, indeed, George and Lennie will find their reward only in that glorious land in the sky. But, though one's heart goes out to these victims, one's mind rebels at the simplicity of the view the play offers and the simplicity of the response it produces: a generalised, cosmic teariness about the human condition. Steinbeck's play may be painfully accurate reportage, but his characters are so downtrodden that they lack not only threat but personality. One doesn't leave the theatre determined to smash the cruelties of agribusiness - which, of course, persist today, in the east of England as in the American West - but sighing over the brutality of fate. Far from challenging self-satisfaction, Of Mice and Men can give comfort to proponents of social Darwinism.

Jonathan Church's production, respectful but not plodding, is well-paced and observed, but it lacks intensity, relying instead on mood music (lots of whiny mouth organs) and imitations of cinema techniques - at the crushing end, a black wall closes in on George, like an iris-out shot. As played by George Costigan, he is sluggish and has a defeated air from the first.

A warmer, more engaging performance could have made George's dream of buying a small farm plausible, its destruction more poignant. Much worse, though, is Matthew Kelly's Lennie, the strong, slow-witted friend George looks after, at the cost of his own safety and comfort, to preserve his humanity. Head nodding, tongue lolling, wrists flapping from awkwardly extended forearms, and wearing (very bad move, this) a hat two sizes too small, with a tiny, turned-up brim, Kelly accentuates Lennie's grotesquerie rather than the childlike qualities that would gain our sympathy and identification.

One could argue that these characterisations are designed to be realistic rather than likable, but the effect is to increase one's detachment. The actors playing the other farm hands are more successful, particularly Tyrone Huggins's embittered Crooks and Julian Protheroe's kindly Slim.

Of Mice and Men is also a teachers' favourite for its easily understood examples of metaphor and foreshadowing. Lennie loves to play with small creatures but doesn't know when to let up: he kills his pet mice, then a puppy without meaning to; a girl he touches becomes frightened and cries rape. But, along with symbolising Lennie's helplessness and signalling his end (the old dog is put down), the animals suggest a message that may not have reached the classroom.

"Mouse" was contemporary, contemptuous slang for a woman, and Lennie's compulsion to stroke soft, furry things is now an embarrassingly blatant analogue for sexual activity, and the "bitch," as she is called, who leads him to his downfall a serpent in a possibly homoerotic garden. (Originally a slut, the part of the nameless wife has been awkwardly and not altogether convincingly rewritten to make her another victim.) Instead of being a response to its particular place and time, Of Mice and Men could be seen as evidence for Leslie Fiedler's famous theory that the American novel is characterised by a death wish and misogyny.

In a theatre with little time for the unglamorous subject and the serious playwright, the sobriety of Steinbeck's play is welcome, but there is less to it than meets the eye.

To 6 December (020-7836 8888)