Theatre in Wales

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Torch jubilee play flies in face of tradition

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Torch Theatre , Torch Theatre, Milford Haven , October-23-02
DIRECTOR Peter Doran raised a few eyebrows when he announced that the Torch Theatre would be celebrating its silver jubilee with a play set in a lunatic asylum. Was he trying to tell us something?

After all, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ is not the obvious choice of play to crank up the feel-good factor – the usual aim of a birthday celebration.

In the event, Peter proved that there was method in all of the madness, delivering a powerful production which veered from the hilarious to the harrowing and thoroughly deserved the lengthy standing ovation which greeted its opening night performance.

There is more than one way to mark a celebration and by choosing this darkest of black comedies, the director not only showed off to the full the capabilities of the theatre, he also played tacit acknowledgement to the increasing theatre-going maturity of the audience. It’s hard to imagine the Torch audiences of 25 years ago being quite so comfortable with such a helping of f-words and sexual allusion.

Although everyone thinks of it as a film, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ began life as a novel by Ken Kesey in 1962, being adapted as a stage play by Dale Wasserman the following year. The film came later and although it had Oscars heaped on it, it is remembered more for the performances of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher than for being a faithful account of the book.

The play restored the giant half-Indian Chief Bromden to the central role he held in the novel. Set in a mental ward in America in the 1950s, the drama features half a dozen patients suffering various degrees of mental illness, from the lobotomised near-vegetable Ruckly, played by local actor Dave Ainsworth, to the hyper-active Cheswick – an outstanding performance by Michael Webber. None are particularly violent or dangerous, with the exception of Chief Bromden – apparently a deaf mute, but whose inner demons are revealed in a series of hallucinatory voice-overs. Indeed most of the inmates have volunteered for admission, being unable to cope with the outside world with its terrible burden of sanity, and they seem to welcome the rigid set of rules which govern the running of the institution.

Enter Randal P McMurphy, a con-man, thief and rapist, who has feigned mental illness in order to escape the rigours of the prison farm. A rebel by nature, he is soon flouting every rule in the book, organising gambling schools, basket-ball matches and even a party in the ward. Welsh actor Richard Nichols is excellent in the part of the unpredictable anti-hero whose challenge to authority briefly raises the self-esteem of the men in the ward before the final, almost inevitable tragedy. Rather like the character of Cheswick, the play is subject to violent mood swings and takes the audience on a roller-coaster of emotions. You laugh at the loonies, which is uncomfortable, you laugh with them, which is heart-warming, you despair at their subservience, applaud their mindless excesses and feel anger at the apparently heartless treatment meted out by Nurse Ratched – played with such icy inhumanity by Kyra Williams – that there was a scattering of spontaneous applause from the audience when McMurphy finally went for her throat.

A Torch audience applauding a convicted rapist for attempting to murder a trained nurse who was only following the rule book? So involving was the production, that it seemed a natural response, thanks to Peter Doran’s orchestration of the conflicting emotions raised by the piece and to the wonderful ensemble and individual acting by a large cast which was wholly committed in every sense. With excellent incidental music by James Crisp, a sturdy institutional set by Sean Crowley and costumes and lighting by the in-house team, this was a Torch Theatre Company production through and through – a tribute to the gains made over the past 25 years and a real cause for celebration.

Reviewed by: Keith Johnson, Western Telegaph

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