Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Grapes of Wrath – West Yorkshire Playhouse

The Grapes of Wrath
Writer: John Steinbeck
Adaptor: Frank Galati
Director: Jonathan Church
Reviewer: Agnes Frimston

"With many eyes turning to America, it felt like the right moment to look at it again”. Director Jonathan Church certainly chose an apt time to revive Frank Galati’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel surrounding the dispossessed and unemployed Joad family. As they travel from Oklahoma to California in their battered truck, driven off their farm due to bank foreclosures, their increasingly desperate search for employment, accommodation and stability cannot help but resonate in today’s economic climate.

As Church states, “there's this notion that we're not all protected, that we need to provide for our families, find a job, find somewhere to live, things that we used to take for granted. That's what this play is about." And Frank Galati’s adaptation, although a little reliant on soliloquy in places to forward the narrative, stays true to the sentiment and atmosphere of Steinbeck’s novel.

The play represents the struggles of an entire nation through the depiction of an individual family; and in doing so, is completely reliant on presenting a realistic family unit. On the whole, the cast gel together well, oiled by a few stellar performances. Oliver Cotton as Reverend Jim Casy provides the moral backbone with his pointed switch from religious to political faith, and also the acclaim of having the finest eyebrows of the piece. Christopher Timothy as Pa Joad, whilst occasionally struggling with the rigours of the Oklahoma accent, is believable as a father struggling with his responsibilities and opportunities, and Damian O’Hare as Tom Joad manages to get increasingly militant without alienating or irritating the audience.

The clear gem however, is Sorcha Cusak as Ma Joad, whose wonderful performance keeps the audience both sympathetic and interested in a character that is ostensibly rather 2-dimensional. Her captivating performance is almost a drawback when I found myself watching her in the background over the other actors’ conversations.

Yet the most striking part of this performance is Simon Higlett’s set and Tim Mitchell’s lighting. The sloping wooden boards emphasise the feeling of an uphill struggle, whilst the 1930s billboards promising prosperity and new beginnings are a constant reminder of the ridiculous extremes of contemporary American society.

Seeing as almost the entire first half of the play depicts the family’s journey, it is an impressive feat on the part of the set designer to keep the audience interested without reverting to gauche trickery. It is a shame that in some places, the set far outshone some of the actors’ performances. Still, it is a tricky accent to master...

Runs until sat 14th Nov
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