Some plays just won’t leave you alone – for me, that play is the iconic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; take it from me, there are worse plays to follow you around!
Mention Cuckoo’s Nest and most people respond with a memory or quote from the Oscar-winning film but it was originally a novel by Ken Kesey and then along came a play adapted from the book by Dale Wasserman. My introduction was via the novel and if you have yet to read it, it’s very worthwhile, however well you know the film. Even as a sixteen-year-old, I was deeply moved by the novel; I read it again a few months ago and it still has an impact. The film was of course, a great hit and deservedly so; wonderful performances, great ensemble playing and confirmed Jack Nicholson as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. The film is somewhat different to the novel but just as powerful.
I was unaware of the play until one day back in 1988, I was invited to audition for the part of Billy Bibbit at the Young Vic in London and for a subsequent UK tour. As a young actor, auditions were a way of life and I would always go into them assuming that I wouldn’t get the job, that way I was never disappointed! But this was different – Billy Bibbit was my dream role, I just adored playing vulnerable characters and this was perfect, right up my street. I had never prepared for an audition as I had for this one.
I had to go to a community hall in Brixton to meet director Robin Midgely, a man with a string of West End hits as long as your arm. On getting off the tube at Brixton, I met an actor whom I’d worked with a few years previously; he had just finished a season at the Royal Shakespeare Company playing leading roles alongside the likes of Ben Kingsley. We did the big luvvie hug etc ‘What are you up to?’ I said. ‘Oh. I’ve just auditioned for the part of Billy Bibbit in Cuckoo’s Nest’ he replied. Despite my throat tightening, I managed to say, ‘Oh, nice! How did it go?’ ‘Oh, I nailed it’ was the over-confident reply. My heart sank, he probably had nailed it, he was an excellent actor whose career was in the ascendancy. I went into the audition somewhat despondent but found the Director both warm and engaging and therefore my spirits lifted and I gave it my best shot. When I received the phone call from my agent telling me that the director would love me to play Billy Bibbit in his production, I couldn’t have been happier and so my relationship with the play began. It was a great production and a wonderful tour, we played all the big famous theatres like the Bradford Alhambra and Bath Theatre Royal. Most of the cast came to my wedding the following year and we’ve remained lifelong friends. One memory that will never leave me was when we played the Pavilion in Bournemouth on April 15th, 1989, we were coming to the end of what had been a long tour. As a group, the cast were very into football and had several Arsenal supporters amongst them; I was a dedicated Liverpool supporter and this particular year there was great rivalry, with Arsenal pipping Liverpool to the title on goal difference. We were playing the Saturday matinée at Bournemouth and when I came off for the interval, the guy playing the Chief (big Arsenal fan) said ‘Bloody Liverpool supporters causing trouble again, they’ve abandoned the semi-final at Hillsborough’. As the day went on the full horror of the Hillsborough disaster became evident and the evening performance was a very solemn affair. Over the years as the Hillsborough enquiry unfolded, it always took me back to my time playing Billy and to that day – very mixed emotions.
By 1994, I had moved over to directing, although still making the odd television appearance as an actor; I had also left London and moved to Cardiff. Andrew Neil, the then head of Acting at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, invited me in to work with the students and after working there on and off for over a year, he asked me to direct a show with the third-year students, he said I could do any play I liked but with just one proviso – I had to accommodate one very large actor who hadn’t had the opportunity to play any good parts due to his size. He was a perfect Chief Bromden and so I got the opportunity to now direct the piece and to use everything that I’d learnt from my time appearing in it. The students loved it and it was a great show, even if I do say so myself. There was a twenty-one-year-old student actor who played Martini in that production and I’m so pleased to say that now as a forty-two-year-old, he is playing him again in the current production.
In 1998, I became Artistic Director of the Torch Theatre. When I started money was tight and we could only afford to do shows with four or five actors, anything bigger would be out of the question. Four year later the theatre was entering its 25th year, I persuaded our Board that a much bigger production than normal would be appropriate to celebrate such an event and thankfully they agreed. However, when I told them my intentions were to mount a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they were sceptical for the first and probably the only time during my directorship. “Not really the appropriate vehicle for a celebration”. Now, I’m not a stubborn person but on this occasion, I dug my heels in, never had I been so confident about something working. We went ahead with it and it became our bestselling show at the time, standing ovations every night and two Theatre in Wales awards for Best Production and Best Design. In the fifteen years since staging it at the Torch, people regularly ask whether we are planning to do it again and in a poll that we ran for fun, it came out top of our audience’s favourite show by a country mile.
And so, here we are again, ready to fly over the Cuckoo’s Nest for a fourth time and I have taken the decision to also make an appearance as Scanlon in this 40th Anniversary production. I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea for directors to also be in the show that they’re directing but firstly, it’s quite a small part and secondly, three other members of the cast have directing experience so I’m sure that between us we can cover all bases. Having only been on stage once in the last twenty years, why am I putting myself through this, I hear you ask? Well, I made my professional debut in the very first Torch Theatre production in 1977 and now Forty years on, it will probably be my last appearance on stage so it seems fitting. Also, when we did it in 2002, Scanlon was played by the wonderful George Waring, after sixty years as an actor, this was to be his last role before he died. When I told his wife that we would do Cuckoo’s Nest again, I said that I had no idea as to how I would replace George, her reply was ‘You must do it, he would love that’. So, it’s also for George an actor whom everyone loved, I hope I can do it justice.
Every time I’ve done this play, the world of Mental Health has been in various stages of turmoil but always fascinating to engage with. This time we had a young twenty-year-old girl come along to rehearsals to chat with us; she has been suffering since the age of fifteen and has now dedicated her life to bringing awareness on behalf of young people who are suffering in the same way. She’s spoken at the House of Lords, Welsh Assembly, Royal Society of Medicine and picked up a BAFTA on the way, so thankfully people seem to be listening and hopefully taking note. She pointed out that some of the happiest times she’s had and some of the most amazing people she has met have been on a mental health ward; she spoke about how safe she feels when she’s admitted and what a great relationship she has with her care worker; so things seem more positive than they have in the past, let’s hope that this is true across the board. If nothing else, I hope the 2017 production of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest will help to raise awareness to this terrible illness.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest will be running from Wednesday 11 to Saturday 28 October, 2017. Tickets are available at the following prices:
£18.00: Full Price
£15.50: TLC Members
To book tickets or for more information, contact our Box Office at 01646 695267 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org