Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Grapes of Wrath - Birmingham Rep

Grapes of Wrath
Adaptor: Frank Galati
Based on the novel by John Steinbeck
Director: Jonathan Church
Reviewer: Helen Chapman

The English Touring Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre brings to the stage John Steinbeck’s prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath. Adapted by Frank Galati, this play lends itself well to a large and varied cast. It follows the journey of the Joad family as they are forced to flee their home in Oklahoma after their farm is repossessed as a result of a devastating season of drought. They are drawn westwards to California along with the other hundreds of families enticed by the prospects of jobs, good wages and food on the table.

And yet what they are faced with is disappointment and dreams unrealised. California isn’t the “land of milk and honey” it claims to be. Grapes of Wrath highlights the family’s struggle as they are faced with trial upon trial, from the death of both grandparents to the delivery of Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby. Steinbeck depicts well the way in which each character, in their own way clings to a hope.
Sorcha Cusak gives a powerful performance as maternal Ma Joad, holding her family together, never complaining but merely making the best of what they have, even sacrificing her treasures for the good of her family. She shows that amidst trouble, compassion, love and sacrifice can go along way. The play opens with ex-preacher Jim Casy who has lost his faith and bumps into Tom Joad, recently released from prison, and decides to accompany the Joad family to California. He himself is on a journey rediscovering what he truly believes, adding a spiritual element and way of dealing with the hard times of 1938 – even hard nut Tom parts from his family using Casy’s words.

The play is fairly slow moving and at times felt a little too slow for the stage. However the large cast spanning the ages served to bring the story to life, with the intensity and heaviness of the storyline lifted by heartwarming characters Granma and Granpa Joad – with one of my favourite scenes being the welcome they gave their Grandson on his unexpected return from prison – adding an element of humour to an otherwise sombre plot.

I am always impressed by the inventiveness of sets used for theatre and this was no exception. The Joad’s journey was by a clapped out car, cleverly designed to move about the stage and managing to accommodate each member of the family – not an easy task! The set designers incorporated a river, a rainstorm and a grave within the stage set up and each was used to really enhance the play. The use of emotive music was timely to this tragic story of loss, hope and despair.

The play ends, in my mind fairly abruptly with no clear sense of anything finishing. But then this reflects the nature of the Joad’s life – a continual struggle to provide for each other, moving from place to place, themselves not knowing when it will end.

This is not a play to be watched if you’re keen for a good laugh.It is a provocative, honest account of a family’s struggle to remain a family, and well worth seeing.
runs until 31st Oct
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