The Torch Theatre chose to celebrate their 40th Anniversary with a spectacular production of the American classic ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s nest’. First performed for their 25th Anniversary in 2002, it won best production and best design for the collaboration between Artistic Director Peter Doran and Set designer Sean Crowley at Wales Theatre Awards. A successful collaboration which has lasted for 50 productions, spanning 20 years of Theatre. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s nest is funny, dark and deliciously rebellious, a perfect choice for the Torch to showcase their talent and to push boundaries.
In this production Doran, who recently won Best Director for the 2017 Wales Theatre Award, also stars in his first theatre role at the Torch since 2004. Doran directs with the flare and eye for detail that we’ve come to expect with the added pleasure of appearing on stage as the irritable, wheel chair bound Scanlon. He draws laughs throughout the play, as he wheels himself around the stage, bumping tables and chairs, creating outbursts of disruption.
Adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey, screen writer Dale Wasserman’s visual brilliance translates perfectly onto the Torch’s small stage. Sean Crowley’s set design is incredible, a bleak interior of a 1950’s mental institution, with tile floors and green and white washed walls. Harsh lighting (Ceri James) highlights the patients faces, giving the impression they have nowhere to hide. The white of the patients and staff uniforms adds to the sterile and clinical feel of the production.
The inmates are first seen peering through the barred windows at the audience, to background music, brilliantly created by resident composer James Crisp.
The 13 strong cast work well to portray Ken Kesey’s view of a 1950’s mental institution in the deep south. A place where the patients are forced to conform by any means possible, under the watchful eye of Nurse Ratched (Jenny Livsey), the hard faced, stern talking representative of the mental health system. The arrival of McMurphy, a petty criminal who chose to have his mental health assessed rather than face another term in jail, stirs the patients from their comfortable routine and gives them hope for a better future.
Kesey’s novel had an immediate impact on its readers when it was released in 1962. The film, starring Jack Nicholson (1975) added to the controversy surrounding the inner workings of mental health institutes. Both are credited with irreparably tarnishing the image of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and contributing to its removal from the health care system.
The atmosphere switches in an instant from humorous, to dark and disturbing. As the patients go about their routines, amusing the audience and McMurphy, a mute half-Indian man (chief – Andy Creswell) sweeps the stage around them, chewing slowly, his face set. Another man is tied up, his gown wet with urine as he shouts expletives across the room (Dave Ainsworth as Ruckly is both funny and disturbing). Later, it is explained that he has had a lobotomy.
Moments of joy or progress amongst the patients, are staunched by the harsh sound of Ratched’s voice over the tannoy, interspersed with a voice over of the chief’s words to his father of the horrors he has experienced. We are plunged into darkness as he talks of wires in his head and days unaccounted for, accompanied by an uncomfortable buzzing sound and a flicker of sparks across images of nuts and bolts.
Jenny Livsey deserves commendation for her role as Nurse Ratched. Her portrayal of the mental health nurse is chilling, at times her face seemed vacant, her tone automated. She bullies her staff as well as her patients, portrayed in the innocent young nurse Flynn (Francesca Goodridge) who seems both sympathetic and scared of the patients. Ratched’s lack of emotion, respect or concern for her patients and their suffering, as she presses them about their issues and sends them for horrific medical procedures is barbaric. Livsey channels this persona perfectly.
Dion Davies (Cheswick) and Liam Tobin (Harding), both familiar faces at the Torch, provide great comic amusement in their roles. They balance this well with the emotional suffering of their positions in the institution and the attachment to their new friend.
Richard Nichols reprises his role as McMurphy. His enthusiasm for change is infectious, as he bounces from one foot to the other and encourages his fellow inmates to rebel against the system, with a deep American twang. He draws us into the story, within moments of his arrival we are part of the group, so that when things don’t change his disappointment and frustration is ours too. We watch him go from a cocky and confident man, to one of the fellow patients, awaiting his fate.
Will Taylor is outstanding as the fragile, stammering Billy Bibbit who has tried to commit suicide. It is heartbreaking to watch him go from laughter at the jokes of his fellow patients, to pain and anxiety when pressed to talk about his life before. In the final scenes of the production, as things begin to unravel for Bibbit, his performance reaches another level as we see him clinging to nurse Ratched, begging for help that we know she will not give him.
The intensity increases in the second act as we are witnesses to the uncomfortable scenes of medical procedures of the time. Flashing lights, screams and mechanical sounds echo around the theatre to audience gasps. A recital of the nursery rhyme referred to in the title, plays disturbingly as patients are dragged away. Jerome Davies (Sound) and Ceri James (lighting) collaborate well to create these effects which works brilliantly alongside Sean Crowley’s set. The final scenes allow us to fully witness Doran’s ‘power of the theatre’ as everything seems to speed up and we are plunged into a world we could only imagine. Never before has the focus on mental health been so relevant. The standing ovation at the end of the production was well deserved.
This 40th anniversary production of One flew over the cuckoo’s nest is a fitting tribute to an award-winning theatre. It takes a dark comic story, with a strong and difficult message, and using a talented cast, production and technical team showcases everything the theatre has to offer for an audience that has welcomed its productions for 40 years.
The Torch Theatre’s production of One flew over the cuckoo’s nest is in association with the mental health charity Mind.
Peter Doran talks about directing One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
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