Review : Mercury Theatre Company’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’

We got back home late night emotionally drained after 3hrs watching the Mercury Theatre Company’s performance of ‘Grapes of Wrath’. I’d read the story about 35 years ago whilst at school, at it had a big impact on me then. This performance does Steinbeck’s novel full justice. And how!

Having been on a couple of promenade performance in Colchester in recent years (DEPOT and Souterrain/Wildwork’s Orpheus and Eurydice), and earlier in the year going to see both War Horse and Oliver! up in London, the play had a lot to live up to.

Unlike the London performances, which featured a lot of stage magic in terms of puppetry and stage mechanics, the Grapes of Wrath has a very simple stage set – a backdrop of walls of wooden planks, with only a couple of other pieces lowered onto stage as necessary. Having said that, having a stream to bathe in, and seeing someone buried on stage, were quite impressive achievements!

But the focus was on the simple stage, and the characters, and, of course, the story, which is very true to the novel. As with DEPOT, there is a large, inclusive, cast, drawn from the Community Acting Company, some taking a number of roles. There are a number of musicians, with fiddle, double bass, banjo being used as effective background music, and also one noteable barn dance scene, which was one of the upbeat highlight.

The lead performances were strong ones, with several generations of the Joad family being portrayed convincingly. The grandparents got strong audience reaction (puh-raise God for Victry!), young Tom Joad had vitality and passion (not quite as restrained as Henry Fonda in the film version), and Ma Joad was of course (if you’re familiar with the story) a lynchpin of the story, as her family splintered and fractured around her.

The old jalopy on which they make their trek westward was cleverly constructed when necessary out of tables, chairs and luggage, and the revolving stage worked well in demonstrating their journey, with monologues from the musicians capturing the essence of the non-narrative elements of the novel.

The story builds up to a shattering ending, Tom’s “I’ll be there…’ speech was delivered strongly, and the final scene, when the daughter who has just had a stillbirth gives succour to a starving man, was clearly almost too much to bear for many of the audience. As lights came down there was a stunned silence, and there was a touch of guilt as it wasn’t really a play to bring the actors back for multiple encores.

The show runs to 30th October, and you can get tickets for under a tenner. You can watch a slideshow of pictures from the performance here, but I’d recommend you don’t do that until after you’ve seen the play, and this is where you buy your tickets!.