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Theatregoers' letters

Planet – the Welsh Internationalist – planet 179

The Guardian
Alfred Hockling

Not many feats of literary stamina match John Steinbeck's composition of the main body of The Grapes of Wrath in little over four months. But Tim Baker's adaptation of it in less than six weeks runs it close. With no workable adaptation of the novel available, director Baker undertook his own version by emulating the novelist's creative warp-speed. Yet perhaps such sheer urgency is the key to the production's success.

The great challenge of The Grapes of Wrath is not so much its length as its breadth. Steinbeck casts every episode of this dust-bowl exodus in wide-screen, and Baker, aided by the evocative expanses of Max Jones's set, stays faithful to the novel's panoramic vision, while never forfeiting a sense of momentum.

There are moments when the characters' cries of "we gotta find work" sound less like a desperate mantra than a statement of the obvious. Yet despite the unremitting hardship, the production sings in the bold cadences of a hymn to human tenacity.

There are many outstanding individual performances, but the fact that the actors are listed as an ensemble emphasises that this is a group achievement. The communal spirit is well reflected in the stirring, multi-part bluegrass harmonies and in Tom Joad's suggestion that "maybe a man don't have an individual soul, just part of a bigger one".

The great merit of this production is that it presents many vividly realised pictures, yet never loses sight of the bigger one.


The Western Mail
Gail Cooper

John Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath charts a shameful episode in the living memories of many American people, when 250,000 families were forced off their land in Oklahoma in the 1930s and trekked to California in search of work.
Clwyd Theatr Cymru's Tim Baker has dismembered the novel to create a memorable stage production, beautifully sung and acted, with a powerful modern resonance.
The production opens with a moving soliloquy by Lynn Hunter as Ma Joad, matriarch of a large family about to be turned off their land by new farming methods.
Lynn, a stalwart of the Welsh stage, has unleashed her formidable bosom into a baggy cardigan and blackened her teeth to play Ma as a real fighter.
The character is the gritty, indomitable equivalent of a "Welsh mam", who holds the family together through terrible trials while her husband, Pa Joad, played by Gwyn Vaughan Jones, gradually falls apart as his raison d'etre is removed. Vaughan Jones conveys the frustration and impotence of such men with sensitivity.
On the shoulders of his character, and three or four other men of working age, falls the burden of supporting a great tribe of children, old people and a pregnant woman.
Like every great classic work, Steinbeck's novel has something to say about the world today, and Baker's production subtly opens our eyes to the painful parallel with modern migrants. The voices of others, from Chinese cocklepickers to Eastern European illegal immigrants, speak through the Joads as they are tormented and harried from state to state, from farm to farm.
There is a fine performance from Bradley Freegard as the Joad's son, Tom, who is out on parole after killing a man, but inevitably gets into more trouble. Freegard's Tom is a character trying to be honest and decent, who is turned bad again by circumstance.
And Catrin Aaron as Rose of Sharon, the Joad's day-dreaming pregnant daughter, brings a vulnerability to the role.
There are moments of terrible pathos, too, as when Grandpa dies on the road, and the cost of his funeral is balanced by Pa against the family's tiny hoard of dollars. Even the two half dollars to cover his dead eyes are grudged.
The "star" in this ensemble piece must be the full-size jalopy car that, Beverly Hillbillies- style, transports the family on their epic journey. The jalopy is moved bodily around the stage to indicate miles travelled, while the narrative is moved on crisply by an excellent body of musicians, singing and playing music from the era, including some rousing square dances and moving hymns.
No other set is really needed, and the vast black screens that overshadow the actors adequately provide a feeling of the oppression of their situation. Dustbowl colours of faded denim and washed-out brown pervade the costumes. We never see the rich oranges and vibrant greens of the promised land, always just out of reach for the Joads.
It is an irony that, in the land whose Statue of Liberty pledged protection to the tired, poor and hungry, such an episode could have blotted its economic copybook so recently.
Baker's production brings the plight of the Joads and their fellow men vividly to life for a modern audience.
My only criticism is it is half-an-hour too long: the repetitive nature of the family's tragic decline is underlined again and again, until the scenes meld into one another in memory.
But Baker has done a magnificent job in converting Steinbeck's masterpiece into a stage show, counterbalancing the gloomy tale with music and humour, and turning an epic journey into a memorable evening.


British Theatre Guide Review
Kevin Catchpole

Standing ovations appear the likely order of the evening at Clwyd Theatre Cymru after performances of Tim Baker’s gripping production of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece of depression America, The Grapes of Wrath.

Baker’s new stage adaptation of the 200,000 word chronicle of itinerants travelling across the US from one state of poverty to another is only the second to be approved by the Steinbeck family.

After relating their plight in stories published in the San Fransisco News, Steinbeck joined the travellers on a 1937 pilgrimage along Highway 66 from the Oklahoma dustbowl to California fruit and cotton fields where they were to find no more work and even less prosperity than in the homes they had left.

With original music by Dyfan Jones, Baker harnesses the talents of sixteen actors, with eighteen children, to produce a remarkably rich example of ensemble playing.

Characters are not, therefore, specifically identified in the programme, yet it would be churlish not to acknowledge the performance of Lyn Hunter as Ma Joad, which is pivotal to the entire production.

Bradley Freegard is a formidable Tom Joad, the role played famously in the 1940 film by Henry Fonda, and there is a notable performance, too, by John Cording as the preacher, with Gwyn Vaughan Jones as Pa Joad.

An almost entirely Welsh cast, schooled by dialogue coach Sally Hague, produce for our wondering eyes a roving family caravan of all ages, veterans grampa and gramma who both succumb to the cruel trail along the way, and youngsters for whom this long journey offers their only hope of future.

Many of the company are trained musicians who, with Jones’s melancholy score, add colour and potency to the grim narrative. Their strumming evokes the pathos of Woody Guthrie's sad lyrics and their faces assume the images of Dorothea Lange’s contemporary black and white photographs.

Max Jones’s design is as stark as the rest of the performance, its bleak simplicity leaving the actors to tell the real story of their surroundings amid the unyielding, hostility of both big country and many of the strangers, deputies and con-men encountered en route.

After Ma’s opening soliloquy, the gaunt backdrop opens to a frame of the Joad family as they prepare their battered motor truck, one of thousands which rolled across the state line into the sunshine state in the late 1930’s. Here and there are glimpses of the American scene, a tiny white church or ranch on the plain.

Things could hardly be worse, yet, after the interval, somehow they are. Heavy rains, brilliantly created by mists which soak the stage, destroy the cotton crops of their new world and weary, often sick migrants trudge from floods to the shelter of abandoned rail wagons.

There’s a deeper social message too, symbolised by Pa’s crumbling leadership of the household and ma’s assertion that he can give the orders when he earns the money. What price then American manhood!

Steinbeck’s four months work on the great account of his pilgrimage mirrors the burden of the travellers themselves. “The rain, the birth, the flood and the barn , the starving man and the last scene that has been ready so long… if I can finish today I don’t much care what happens afterwards.”


Timothy Ramsden

Poor men and women Go West in a fine, mighty epic.
Since Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre brought it to London, Frank Gelati’s stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel has held the ground. Now Mold director Tim Baker directs his own version. The familiar events are there, as impoverished Oklahoma farming family the Joads setting off in their jalopy to cross ’30s Depression America for work in California.
But Baker strengthens Steinbeck’s political spine with choric episodes emphasising the importance of “our people”. The travellers aren’t perfect; Tom, out of prison, tends to violent responses against injustice. Pregnant daughter Rose of Sharon is abandoned by her husband. And there’s internal American racism as Californians insult incoming “Okies”.
But the enemy’s out there. Arid land drives the Joads from Oklahoma, floods terminate cotton-picking work out West. Yet it’s the owners of the earth who make life desperate, destroying the Joad’s farm when rent’s unpaid, driving down wages among the masses who’ll work for anything. The ‘market’ of supply and demand, and the bosses’ use of easily-corrupted local law-enforcement to remove potential labour organisers, are clearly shown.
Exceptions are few: a brief interlude shows pity among common folk, a diner-owner and truckers, for the very poor, while a government-run camp lets people live with the dignity soap and hot-water provides. This haven is under constant threat from local bosses who prefer a workforce too enfeebled to protest. A Joad child’s simple request for non-existent soap after leaving this camp poignantly makes the point about raised expectations.
The action’s many transitions are finely-handled, Max Jones’ bare-space set with its many temporary elements helping events along, while Tina MacHugh’s beautifully angled and atmospheric lighting sculpts realities out of the overcrowded yet lonesome West.
Among a fine cast Gwyn Vaughan Jones and Lynn Hunter are mainstays, showing patriarchal tradition evaporating when there’s no bread to win, while female resilience underpins survival. This is encapsulated in the closing image, where Catrin Aaron’s young Rose, having earlier complained about having no milk to drink during pregnancy, breastfeeds a dying man after her child’s stillborn.
Baker’s exemplary direction is spacious yet flowing. Surely this adaptation will not disappear after its currently-scheduled run.


The Chronicle

AWESOME, gripping, an emotional roller coaster that can only get better as it goes along.
The play, although written in 1938, has amazing significance today. It concentrates on the bitter conflict between the powerful and the powerless, on one man’s fierce reaction to injustice and one woman’s quiet, stoical strength.
The best testimony to the success of this new stage production of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, comes from an American friend who attended the Press Night with us.
He said the accents were pretty much authentic and, as he hails from Texas, I was happy to take his word for it. He also said that the costume and character of Tom Joad, played by Bradley Freegard, was “spot on” and that he knows people exactly like that back home. Praise indeed!
Designer Max Jones’ set is magnificent - a huge, empty stage with black screens that slide up, down or sideways, as the direction demands. You get the impression that anything can happen in that space, and it does. The wonderful jalopy, wheeled on and off a revolving stage and created entirely by the theatre workshop staff, plays almost as prominent a part as the actors.
This is not a “story”, it is a record of real events which happened in the so-called `Land Of The Free’ within living memory. It records the everyday lives, loves and hardships experienced by the desperate people of Depression America as the `Okies’ (so called because they originated in Oklahoma) travelled the infamous Route 66 to what they were led to believe would be a better future in California.
The 16-strong cast, aided by eight local schoolchildren, must be applauded for their effort, especially Lynn Hunter (Mama Joad) who is seldom off the stage and gives a superb performance as she struggles to keep her family united against all the odds. Praise for his performance is also due to John Cording who plays the part of the disillusioned preacher man, Jim Casy.
Then there is the music, superb Woody Guthrie numbers played on guitar, harmonica, banjo, violin and washboard, by a group of actors more usually associated with the theatre’s famous Rock `n’ Roll pantomimes than with serious stuff like this.
That the play has been staged at all is due to director Tim Baker’s painstaking adaptation of the original which was, at the last minute, accepted for production by the Steinbeck Estate. His interpretation shows a huge affinity with the sufferings of the people and, at the same time, encapsulates their rare moments of happiness.
Seeing the play is a riveting experience. Don’t go expecting a `happy ever after’ ending, go prepared to have your senses awakened by this classic story of man’s inhumanity to man; the `I’m all right Jack’ school of thought; the strength of family loyalties and the sacrifices they necessitate. Go loaded with tissues to wipe the tears of laughter and sadness; go prepared to leave the theatre pondering on these issues and ask yourselves what has really changed since then.


The Stage
Victor Hallett

Tim Baker’s powerful epic production brings Steinbeck’s characters to full-blooded life, as well as the ferocity of the author’s anger at the desperate plight of the families forced to flee the American dustbowl only to find the promised paradise of California a living hell.
Designer Max Jonas’ realisation of the journey reflects the scale. Often the stage seems bare, giving a sense of vast landscapes, even though it contains the Joad’s full-size jalopy, whose manhandling on and off the effective revolve gives an equally strong sense of the journey’s hardships. It’s later joined, in a jaw-dropping moment, by two railway freight cars and yet there’s always room for the cast of 16, plus numerous children.
The programme reflects the true ensemble nature of the production by simply listing the cast in alphabetical order with no indication of their roles. And what a fine ensemble it is, creating the human landscape on the road west with power and conviction.
However, some individual performances do emerge strongly. John Cording is gripping as Preacher and Gwyn Vaughan Jones strong as Pa Joad who finds his world slipping away. Bradley Freegard’s explosive Tom Joad is a man barely able to keep his anger under control. Lynn Hunter was clearly born to play Ma Joad - by the end the character dominates the family, the stage and the audience, surely one of the towering performances of the year.
It’s a highly emotional production that doesn’t shy from rhetoric and is not afraid to be angry.


Liverpool Daily Post
Lew Baxter sees a play which does book justice.

There are those who might regard this latest adaptation of the fabled John Steinbeck’s mid 1930s polemic on desperation, despair and sheer desolation, in the futile search for the American dream, as a tad too indigestible.
Even director Tim Baker admits that it is very harrowing stuff, yet he remains convinced that the play is a fascinating exploration of what destructive forces capitalism can exert, when work is scarce and folks are hungry.
Indeed, Baker commented before setting forth on this mammoth task – the final part in his American trilogy that has encompassed memorable productions of To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men – that this is his creative team’s own interpretation of the book that makes Crime and Punishment seem like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Baker has assembled a powerful and clearly enthused cast to tackle what is a rollercoaster of emotional twists and turns.
It would be a rank injustice to all performers to isolate one or two for special mention, although Lynn Hunter and Gwyn Vaughan Jones as the “maw and paw” of the ill-fated Joad family are the anchor around which the turbulent seas of fate and fortune rage.
The sets by Max Jones and lighting by Tina MacHugh are minimalist yet starkly and harshly realistic, as the family is forced to take to the road in an old jalopy after losing their land during the Great Depression, heading off on an odyssey to the Shangri-la of California. Their struggle for survival, and subsequent sufferings that see the family rent asunder, is exhausting to endure, particularly as Baker and the cast have an unerring ability to draw in the spectators to almost taste the bile and blood of the myriad disappointments that turn hopes to ashes, and worse.
There is also an intelligent yet restrained use of musical accompaniment and song – again by various members of the cast – that evokes the mood of that era as the Dust Bowl Ballads of the legendary Woodie Guthrie are performed as a backdrop to the unfolding tragedies.
The Pulitzer prize-wining book was a landmark in American literature, and Tim Baker has produced a terrific stage drama that even Steinbeck might acknowledge does more than justice to his novel.


Planet – the Welsh Internationalist – planet 179

I read The Grapes of  Wrath when I was sixteen.  I was lolling over a copy of Jackie, the teen magazine of the day, during one of those end of term lessons in the lower sixth at Ysgol Rhiwabon, when my long-suffering English teacher, Mr Derek Owens, put a thick volume on my desk and said something along the lines of, “Read something worthwhile for a change, girl”.  Grudgingly I started the book and much to my surprise found myself hooked.  My reaction to the novel must have been largely on a romantic level; I loved the sing-song dialogue and I loved the name Rose of Sharon and the image of her suckling the old man a the end has stayed with me always, even though many find it sentimental.  Strangely, I have never read the book again, possibly because I found it harrowing and possibly because the act of reading it is so firmly placed in a particular time of my growing up, that to revisit it would be to spoil it.

Tim Baker has taken upon himself the daunting task of adapting and directing the journeys and the stories in The Grapes of Wrath for the big space at Theatr Clwyd.

The production is vast.  There is a cast of sixteen adults and assorted children.  The set (Max Jones) and the lighting (Tina MacHugh) manage to convey extremes of climate, such as the heat and aridity of the landscape on the one hand and the claustrophobia that comes with the rain that destroys the cotton crop on the other.  There is wonderful attention to detail:  beautiful models of homesteads and shanties appear in the far distance, framed by the massive black flat pieces that make them look even further away.  In the straw-coloured hard-baked floor, tiny bits of vegetation are inserted.  Nothing else can grow here.  Boxcars, wooden crate-like animals, house the desperate families as sheets of mist oppress the stage in unending rain.  Central to the staging is the jalopy that is home, transport and means of escape to the Joad family.  It is wheeled on and off, it is spun round, it is climbed upon, it is slept in, it provides a death bed until finally it, too, dies. 

This is an epic piece of theatre in style and execution.  There is, as one has been led to expect from Tim Baker’s work, excellent ensemble playing.  Whereas the family members are always the family, everyone else plays many different parts.  Sometimes they configure into a chorus of actor-musicians who provide the audience with the historical and sociological facts that inform the story.  This serves to make the family’s plight more poignant to the audience, for while we know that there will be no bright California filled with jobs for the Joads, we have to watch how the family’s hopes are lifted and eroded time after time.  The playing is on the whole focused and energized.  Many members of the cast manage to move us because they can convey their stories on different levels.  I am reminded particularly of John Cording’s ex-preacher struggling with his own sense of morality so that he can provide the holy words of comfort that are asked of him by the family; Maldwyn John’s anger and hurt, while trying not to “fret” the family when they meet as his character is leaving California, and Rhys Parry Jones’s tenderness as he decides on the gruesome disposal of Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby.  Indeed it could be said that the camaraderie in the ensemble playing echoes the camaraderie among the characters whose lives cross on the road and in the camps. 

There is no happy ending to The Grapes of Wrath, yet it is an optimistic piece.  The human spirit survives against all the odds.  Poor people share the little they have with other poor people.  For example, there is a lovely piece of third person story telling with first person dialogue when a diner proprietor lets a father have some bread and candy for a low price without letting him lose face in front of his sons.  Her generosity is noticed by the hardened truck drivers who overtip her to counter loss.  People help where they can, people take delight in other people’s company and take nourishment from it.

The Grapes of Wrath is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s when it was written.  Immigrants, legal and otherwise, continue to be exploited because they need money to feed and clothe their families just like Pa and Ma Joad did.  Tim Baker and all concerned with this production remind us of this in a fresh and moving way.

Gwen Ellis


Theatregoers' letters

Yet another magnificent production of an Amercian play, which we saw last evening.  It was profoundly disturbing, not least because the same sort of injustices still happen.  Only this morning an item on the radio spoke of miners being driven from their homes in Ghana, and being beaten up and killed.

Profoundly disturbing, but also profoundly moving, and extremely well played.  As the mother in the story holds the family together, with such great strength, it was inevitable that the part should dominate, but only as sustained by the rest of the cast.  The mother’s posture, when silently pleading with Rose of Sharon to feed the dying man, was almost completely overwhelming.  If found myself moved to tears by her final speech with its repeated quotation from Ecclesiastes, and my applause was, if possible, more fervent than even for The Crucible and To Kill A Mockingbird, of such amazing memory.

Thank you for continuing to be such a splendid company.  In the year 2000, we retired to the Wirral, from Windermere.  One of the reasons we chose the Wirral, apart from the contacts we already had here, was the nearness of Theatr Clwyd.  Last night confirmed us in the wisdom of our choice.

Alan Gaunt

We came to see your production of The Grapes of Wrath yesterday evening (28th Sept) and I want to thank you and the cast for a memorable performance.  It had the true magic of great theatre – we, the audience, became as one with the actors – no, rather with these people, living out that experience before our eyes – (it was the one consuming reality at the time) – and I emerged felling as if something had changed – a painful rawness of emotion still persisting.  It’s an experience like reading in a great novel – things have shifted afterwards.

Thank you for your superb adaptation, a brilliant production, Tim Baker, (yet again!):  and also to your dedicated and brilliant team of actors – total conviction of the acting – and a superb balance achieved – altogether outstanding.

I found in the foyer a woman of my own advanced years standing quietly (after the discussion you generously offered) – with a shining look in her face – we spoke of how deeply we’d been moved and absorbed – (even at our age” we smiled wryly) – at one.

So, again, thank you for a wonderful and memorable experience.

Mary Dagley.

My husband and I were in the theatre yesterday afternoon, for the performance of The Grapes of Wrath by your goodselves, and I just felt that I must write to thank you for a very touching and illuminating rendition of this play, which could have been so overdrawn, but was not;  so over-acted, but was not; and so emotional, but was not!  We were both deeply moved by the story, but the way it was played was both hurting and believable, but not maudlin!

We are regular patrons of the Theatre, and have enjoyed so many of your performances, and are beginning to ‘recognise’ the Company as they move from play to play, but their previous ‘characters’ never impinge on the one they are portraying ‘now’, and we feel ourselves fortunate to have such a Company of actors/esses ‘on our doorstep’!

May you have many more happy and fulfilling successes in our theatre.

David and Ann Jennings.