The Grapes of Wrath. English Touring Theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 12-11-09

It was an absolute joy to see a cast of twenty on a set which dominated the large open stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. This was the grand canvas that a book like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath deserves. It describes how the agricultural society of mid 1930’s Oklahoma was torn apart by dust storms, crop failure, illness, poverty and ruthless bankers, and this production had the scope to do it justice. The Joad family are just one of many farming families who are thrown off their land and forced to become migrants, “Okies” who nobody has any sympathy or charity left for. We follow their journey as they travel, shoehorned into an old jalopy with what is left of their previous life, hoping to find work in California. It is a tragic journey which ought to be completely without hope, they are just one more group of vulnerable, despised people, vagrants who are fair game to be abused and exploited, but this is a celebration of the dustbowl poor and their strength and courage, a hymn to the dispossessed. Sustained by the simple faith and practical love of their matriarch, Ma Joad, they face every hardship and setback with a simple determination to stay together and keep moving on. What else is there to do?

Quite a story then, and enough suffering to break your heart. There were four of the people on the journey who I particularly felt for. Granma Joad was beautifully played by Jennifer Hill. In the short time that she had she managed to paint a whole picture of a woman and her long marriage which was truthful, detailed and touching. This is something that only an excellent stage actor can do with a small part and it’s a joy when it happens. It lifts the whole ensemble onto another level and provides depth and veracity. Tom Joad is a young man who is destroyed by a single flaw. He is unable to prevent himself from fighting back against injustice, and there is enough of that around to ensure that trouble has a way of finding him very quickly. It was a strong convincing performance from Damien O’Hare, and he had a great scene with Sorcha Cusack as his mother when he is finally forced to leave the family and go on the run. Ma Joad is the beating heart of the Joad family, the still calm voice at the centre of everything, holding them together. It is a wonderful part for Sorcha Cusack and she makes the most of it, giving a great performance. She is an untiring and luminous presence who will do anything for her loved ones. Jim Casy, who tags along with the Joads, is another fascinating character, a veteran preacher who has lost his faith, no longer able to find answers in religion to help him face the suffering he is seeing. His natural sense of justice and his good heart has survived alongside his cynicism. He is the most complex and interesting character in the play and Oliver Cotton had the right presence and charisma to play him. Altogether it was a fine ensemble (one or two accents which were shaky from time to time are easily forgiven when the character is there and the acting is heartfelt) and the company showed us a believable family and a believable suffering community.

The family jalopy (which was a moving realistic car) and the background set of a large collapsing wooden slatted house were both tremendously important, filling out the picture of the journey and giving it a context. All the colours on stage were those of earth and sky, in the muted tones of the familiar photographs from the dustbowl era, and combined with the clever lighting the costumes and the set made a savage kind of beauty from decay. Advertising posters were projected onto the top of the house wall, and their blind optimism provided a bitter contrast to the reality of the lives which we were watching below them. They were a constant reminder for both us and the Joads that the American dream was well out of their reach, even if they would never stop striving for it.

The original music, which was performed live, was haunting and evoked the period beautifully. I knew that it would be very special as soon as I saw John Tams’ name in the programme.

The final image of the play is both hopeful and heartbreaking. I am not going to spoil it for anyone who has not read the book or seen this production, even though I would love to describe it.


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