Based on John Steinbeck’s iconic novel of the same name, the Joad family are in search of a better life in the American West, California. After their drought-ridden farm is taken by the bank, the Joads, led by paroled Tom (Andre Squire), pack up a truck full of necessities and head West. On their journey, they meet many other families making the same trip, experiencing the same hardships in pursuit of the same American Dream, to live and die on their own piece of land. However, once they arrive in California, the Joads soon see that the promised land of peaches isn’t quite what they thought, and it might have been better just to stay in Oklahoma.
Along with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath makes the shortlist of Great American novels. Though, this adaptation is better than most are making it out to be. That said, whilst the novel is an ‘epic novel’, the play is anything but. Abbey Knight’s play fails to capture the grandeur on which the novel makes its name. While the book is considered as a reflection between a biblical journey from Exodus to the Promised Land, the play is not, but that does not make it necessarily bad. When I think of this play, Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor comes to mind.
I liked the use of a barren stage, much alike to the barren wasteland the Joads find themselves in. But I didn’t see much point in the two metallic objects. They seemed clunky like Lego and only seemed to get in the way. It would have been better to play around with different lighting and sound effects to create various changes in setting and mood. What got me was the use of musical numbers. I liked the musical numbers in terms of scoring, but when the musical gets “very Broadway”, that’s not what I envisioned for a play about poverty and destitute families at all. To put it short, the musical musical numbers get in the way of them telling the actual story.
The best parts are the most basic things. The Joads’ first look at their utopia, a place where they find themselves: used, marginalised and discriminated against. I also liked the blend of 1930s attire with 21st century-dress, something I previously saw at NT Live: Hamlet. When period overalls met modern fashion like T-shirts and jeans, it was a work of art, not just from theatrical view, but from a photographic one too. Furthermore, it showed similarities between the 1930s and the present day, as we still have the same problems. Homelessness is on the rise, the working class are struggling and people are being laid off left, right and centre, as depicted in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake.
The second act is where we’re totally aware of the poor’s situation in 1930s America. Hoovervilles show how hopeless these characters are, especially when they’re pit against brainwashed workers who have grown to love their chains, rich landowners and corrupt police officers. With workers working with the rich landowners who work with corrupt cops, the problem of rich and poor is a man-made one. Capitalism abused by the landowners, and allowed to slide by the cops as long as they got paid shows that human nature is the antagonist in both the novel and the play which reflects the problems of ‘the now’, with the West’s attitudes towards the Syrian Refugees.
This play wins with its characters and I grew to like many of them a lot. Though, the one that stood out for me is Ma Joad (Julia Swift). From her perspective it’s made very obvious that it’s the women, not the men, who call the shots. They’re battle-born, resilient and fierce. It’s Ma you want accompanying into a war zone, not Pa or Tom. And in my experience, it is women that are the stronger half of our species and the ones with a sturdier backbone. Through characters like Ma, we see how rough people had it, and through characters like Casey (Brendan Charleson) too. But then we had Connie (Ben Bland) leaving pregnant wife Rose (Molly Logan) for god knows what!
All the performances were great, but frankly it was Ma Joad who became my favourite character and Julia Swift stole the entire show from the other cast. It just so happens that Ma was my favourite character in the original novel too. Musical numbers aside, Abbey Knight’s The Grapes Of Wrath is a worthwhile theatre trip, a sound adaptation of the original novel and it’s showing at Northampton’s ‘Royal & Derngate’ theatre until Saturday 20th May.
A great reflection of the 1930s, but more so, a critique of what is happening now in the present day