Friends reunited

Pam Mills

All this week you can see a stage version of John Steinbeck’s classic novel Of Mice and Men, set during America’s Great Depression, performed at the Assembly Hall. Richard Keightley, who plays George, told Eileen Leahy all about the show, and the secret to ensuring this classic stays relevant for a contemporary audience


Let’s start with a brief synopsis Of Mice and Men for those not familiar with the plot…
Two ranch workers, George Milton (who I play) and Lennie Small, have a dream of
owning their own farm. Due to Lennie’s mental disability and lack of understanding about some of his actions, and George’s over protectiveness of him, they keep moving from ranch to ranch in the hope of building up enough money to buy their dream. Their arrival on a ranch where tensions are already building – between the owner’s insecure son and his new wife, and the fractious dynamic between the other workers – leads to tragic consequences.

Why I think it such a special play to perform

Any play is about human connection (from the very fact of the audience watching the actors), but one where a friendship is placed at the heart of it, and is written in such a way that is so detailed and nuanced, is particularly special. Also, it feels on stage that the
production supports the action in every way courtesy of the design, the lighting, the sound, and enhances everything the company came up with in rehearsals

Why I think this particular story is still so relevant today
The writing is so expertly done that, while John Steinbeck focuses on a single friendship that runs through the core of the play, he touches upon so many issues that are still unresolved today. These include social isolation, attitudes to migrant workers, racism and misogyny, to name but a few. Sometimes during the story we can see how far we have come, and at other times it is painful to see how little we have moved on.

A bit more about the play’s tour…
We opened in Canterbury nearly two months ago and I’m loving the chance to visit so many towns and cities I’ve never been to. I’ve never performed in a single one of the
venues we’re touring, so there’s lots of new places to discover, and I also get to see those friends and relatives who live near where we’re touring who I don’t get to see so much. We’re a cast of ten – and a dog.

The audience’s general reaction
The reaction we receive is extremely positive, and considering the brutality of the world the characters inhabit, it is testament to the writing, direction and acting that there is a surprising amount of humour in the show. There are a couple of fairly visceral moments,
which always seem to get a good reaction from the audience. It is always interesting to see where audience sympathies lie – different audiences seem to sympathise with different characters and their situations – it changes every night.

What I’m looking forward to about coming to Tunbridge Wells
I used to live in Sevenoaks over 30 years ago, and have very hazy childhood memories of the town. So I am looking forward to discovering Tunbridge Wells as an adult – and maybe finding myself having some wanderings down memory lane!

The secret behind a successful stage show
The most important thing about any show is that the story is being told as well as possible. This starts with good writing, which we definitely have, and then it depends upon the director’s vision and how they make that manifest with the creative team.
Built upon that is the casting of the show, then the rehearsals, and finally how the company carry the show forward throughout the run. Each stage is built upon the last, and a weakness in any of those layers can cause a show to be unbalanced, inconsistent or patchy. I’m very proud to say that I feel this show ticks all of these boxes!

What I hope the audiences at the Assembly Hall theatre will come away with after
seeing Of Mice and Men
Hopefully a depiction of the strength of friendship and the human spirit. As heartbreaking a story as it is, it is also uplifting to see how we can face up to challenges in our lives, whatever form they may take. Also, at the very least, you get what is described in the film Shakespeare in Love as what all audiences want: “Love, and a bit with a dog.”

1 Just like George and Lennie, John Steinbeck also worked as a ranch hand or ‘bindle-stiff’, as they were known. In an interview with The New York Times in 1937, he described how it inspired him to write about this profession as no one else in literature had covered it.

2 We’ve all used that classic line ‘my dog ate my homework’, but legend has it that the reason there is no first draft available of the first draft of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is  because… you guessed it, his dog ate it!

3 Steinbeck’s character Lennie Small was based on a real person the author knew while working on a ranch. Steinbeck once told a journalist: “He didn’t kill a girl, he killed a ranch

4 The original title the author gave his now classic piece of American literature was Something That Happened, before he changed it to Of Mice and Men.

5 The title Of Mice and Men is an homage to Scottish poet Robert Burn’s 1785 poem To A Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough.

Of Mice and Men is on every day at the Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells, until Saturday March 31. For tickets and times, visit

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