Theatre in Wales

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Sorrow, pathos and hope in Torch Triumph

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Torch Theatre , Torch Theatre, Milford Haven , October 24, 2002
After seeing a memorable play, show or film, people eagerly gather together to discuss, to define and ultimately celebrate the experience they’ve shared; to crystallise the moment and hold it dear forever. After all, what are we, in the end, other than a collection of memories?

The opening night performance of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ at the Torch would certainly qualify as such a night; a crowded house left the theatre elated and moved.

Adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman soon after the publication of Ken Kesey’s novel in 1962, ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ is a poignant diorama set in a mental institution, the endless cycle of routine and discipline disrupted at last by the admission of one Randal P McMurphy, a sauntering rogue, hustler and gambling man with a ‘cowboy air and a sideshow bluster’ who rallies the cowering inmates to defy the will of the efficient matriarchy, led by the icy, calculating and fearsome Nurse Ratched.

It’s fair to say that this version of the story, directed by Peter Doran and staged with expert economy and gritty visual éclat, lies balanced between the Kesey original and the critically acclaimed 1975 movie; the psychedelic perception of Indian Chief Bromden, warped, paranoid yet hauntingly accurate providing the axis of this tale as it should be told.

The Big Chief’s narrative monologue was highlighted dramatically by dynamic shifts in lighting and mood – the set would darken entirely, Bromden isolated, trapped like a deer in headlights as his history flashed before him, the haunting incidental score of resident composer James Crisp a chilling counterpoint. In terms of authenticity, as well as the barred windows and scuff marks on the doors and walls, the set even smelled like a hospital – was this intentional? Or was the caretaker a bit heavy-handed with the bleach perhaps…? We shall probably never know…

The depth and darker aspect inherent in the novel and the stripped down crowd-pleasing aspects of the film are all to be found here; Jack Nicholson’s take on McMurphy, such a powerful, irresistible template for any actor – a courageous Richard Nichols finding no exception. Compelling performances also from experience Keith Woodason as the solitary and cerebral Dale Harding; Kyra Williams an appropriately measured eminent presence as ‘Big Nurse’ and the promising Gareth Pierce as a sweet, affecting Billy Bibbit.

By turns caustic, satirical, grim, hysterical, comic, tragic and moving, this story and its performance here last Wednesday was warmly received with a standing ovation from the Torch Theatre audience. The operative word of the night in discussions after the show was ‘funny’, not just funny as in laughter or funny as in strange but funny sad … This remarkable play; its centre a bitter-sweet feeling of sorrow, of pathos but at its heart a sense of hope.

Reviewed by: Shelby Williams, Milford Mercury

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