Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath won the 1990 Tony for Best Play, an award which recognises the ambition and efficiency of this tightly-wound compression of a beloved doorstop. The decision to restage it in 2017, and with a contemporary ‘community chorus’ made up of local people from each stop on the tour, implies an unusually political edge for a Nottingham Playhouse co-production. John Steinbeck’s raw account of the decline of a way of living and of the systems that shunt oppressed people from one false hope to another couldn’t be any timelier, and is as much reminiscent of I, Daniel Blake as (more obviously) of the refugee crisis.
The production begins promisingly enough, with young Noah bathed in spotlight playing the musical saw, an eerie and melancholy tune picked up and embellished by the on-stage band, made up of the acting company and led by Matt Regan, who writes new music for this revival. While perhaps not quite The Grapes of Wrath: The Musical!, the songs are central to a production built around ideas of community expression, and range from solemn laments to beat-inspired accounts of Route 66.
There is a bold and ambitious show buried within the production. The two large translucent containers that make up Laura Hopkins’s set lend an emblematic quality to the whole that makes some sense of the mixed period costume – which in the case of the leads gravitates towards dust bowl America, but in the supporting roles and community chorus ranges from leggings to superhero costumes to a somewhat poignant ‘Are we nearly there yet? T-shirt – and their scale evokes a story on the scale of The Ark rather than a single dilapidated motor car. The best scenes are those when the enormous company gather to gaze ambivalently towards their future, or to stage the novel’s debates about collectivism versus the individual, flagging up the indignities suffered by those so desperate for work that they will take fractional wages. When the production allows these debates to come to the fore, it finds its purpose.
It’s frustrating, then, that the production is such a mess, struggling technically on almost every level. The set is striking, but so enormous and cumbersome that it becomes a burden. When characters are performing inside the containers they are barely visible and much more difficult to hear, lessening the impact of major events such as the death of Granma. The audibility problems are compounded by a combination of the casts’ varying command of their accents (and one does wonder, in a production so intent on showing the universality of this story, why accent alone is strictly adhered to), the electronically reprocessed voices that flatten the dynamics, and horrific sound balancing that puts the incidental music too high in the mix, drowning out the actors.
The technical issues are disruptive, but the storytelling is muddy on its own terms. A low bar is set early on by a catastrophic song and dance sequence about used car sales, performed by three of the cast on those springy foot stilts. Not only is the song unfunny, visually incoherent, toneless and narratively pointless, but only one of the poor performers doesn’t look terrified; it is a relief when the scene ends without accident. The subplots featuring members of the extended Joad family are dealt with in single lines; while the narrative efficiency is commendable, there is no time to build the stakes necessary for the emotional impact of deaths and departures; and indeed the enormous community chorus detracts from the visual significance of the Joad family dwindling.
The chorus justify their presence occasionally, particularly when swelling the size of a picket, but for the most part they are directed to appear motionless on stage. In combination with the bulkiness of the set, the cast are frequently left with almost no room to move, as is most apparent in the stilted barn dance sequence, and when they appear scattered standing throughout the containers at the start of Act 2, they look like Tube commuters rather than residents of a camp. The gestures towards contemporaneity never go beyond gestures, and indeed the production seems torn between its desire to tell a specific emotional story and its impulse to universalise this narrative, ultimately doing a partial job of both.
And yet the cast work hard throughout, creating moments that stand out from the chaos. AndrÃ© Squire anchors events as an aggressive, passionate Tom; Brendan Charleson does much of the production’s best work by giving ex-preacher Casy a calm, reflective voice that asks the big questions uninterrupted; and Molly Logan is the heart of the production as Rose of Sharon, developing resilience as she experiences travel, abandonment, and eventually the loss of her child. As Rose of Sharon takes off her underslip at the end of the production to feed a dying man, the production both captures the poignancy of the novel’s famous closing image, and simultaneously ruins it with protracted, clunky shifts of people and scenery; a tension between aspiration and realisation representative of the whole.
The Grapes of Wrath is on at Nottingham Playhouse until 8th April 2017. Click here for more details.