Review: The Grapes of Wrath – Steinbeck comes to Leeds

The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s latest production is an adaption of John Steinbeck’s classic American novel The Grapes of Wrath. The play follows the progress of the Joad family as they travel west across America, fleeing the ravages of the Dust Bowl which has devastated the Great Plains. On their journey, they encounter thousands of other migrants heading west, seeking work in the promised land of California. As the play progresses, the audience witnesses the Joad family slowly come to the realisation that things ‘out west’ are no better than they were back home. The stark depiction of the hunger and cruelty suffered by the migrant workers in the 1930s is one of the reasons why Steinbeck’s text has endured so long. The production put on by the WYP sought to fuse the struggle of the 1930s with the disillusionment of 21st century America by including actors in modern dress.

The play opened with a single spotlight focused on a man playing the saw. The uncanny music emphasised the feeling of desolation which permeated the rest of the performance. The central performances given by Andre Squire in the role of Tom Joad and by Julia Swift as Ma. A stand out performance was also given by Alexander Newland in a variety of roles. He narrated the Joad’s travels, reading passages taken directly from Steinbeck’s text.

Though there were a few stand out scenes, most notably those which used the chorus made up of people from the community in Leeds. These scenes created an image of the collective suffering of the American people during the period. However, the meandering nature of the source material made the play feel unstructured. This resulted in a lack of tension and with the ending offering little satisfaction or closure. Overall the play had enjoyable moments and made a good use of music and a talented cast. Despite this, the play felt somewhat incomplete.

Xa Rodger

Image courtesy of The West Yorkshire Playhouse 

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