An epic night at the theatre

The Grapes of Wrath, by Frank Galati based on the John Steinbeck novel, at Colchester Mercury until October 30.

By anybody’s standards this is an epic night of theatre, Brechtian in feel on a wide-open stage and full of good things. It is Steinbeck’s famous story of a family, driven out of 1930s dustbowl Oklahoma by greedy landowners, and making their 1000-mile trek in search of work.

There are jobs galore in California, they are told, so they load the whole family of a dozen on to a rickety old truck and away they go, led by Tom the eldest son who has just returned on parole from prison for killing a man in a fight.

They take with them Casy, a lapsed reverend who has decided that booze and the sins of the flesh make more sense than filling people full of the good book. We meet him singing ‘Yes Sir, that’s my Saviour,’ to the tune of ‘Yes Sir, that’s my baby.’ Rich in simple homespun philosophy, he argues that ‘there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue, just stuff.’

They are not alone on the road. Thousands like them share their dream of a better life unaware that they are part of a giant con-trick being played by men every bit as unscrupulous as those that pushed them on their way.

There are a few jokes and a light moment or two but this is a tale of unremitting hardship, of death, disappointment, anger and desertion. It grips tight and the storytelling is aided wonderfully by three musicians seated on the side of the stage. Ian Harris (violin), Jim Kitson (banjo,guitar) and Christopher Staines (double bass) combine in folksy tunes and gentle haunting blue grass to set the mood and underline the drama.

Dawn Allsopp’s big bold set works a treat and Tony Casement’s direction is just as strong. One could argue that it is a bit slow here and there and the whole thing a little too long, perhaps for that reason. But the end may justify the means.

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We love his ramshackle truck made of tables and chairs that sails round and round the stage and the fact that when his dust-caked, travel-weary men plunge into the river, they are romping in and ducking under real water. There’s lots to admire. But don’t go looking a happy ending although, peeping through the terror and violence, there is just a flicker of hope.

Gary Shelford’s Tom is a tough guy who means well but will always find trouble and Tim Treslove has a nice comfortable time with Casy. Nickie Goldie is Ma, the really strong one in the family who keeps everyone going and Roger Delves-Broughton is her vacillating hubby.

But this is an all-round good cast that includes 50 ‘extras’ from the Community Acting Company who add substance and colour to a number of the scenes – and even a bit of hoe-down dance.

David Henshall.