Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

BULL GOOSE BRILLIANT Five stars out of five

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST

Torch Theatre Company , Torch Theatre Milford Haven , October-13-17
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST by Torch Theatre Company Oh for f’…One Flew Over The…? Not that old thing? Why oh why, in the name of Kylie and all her leggy backing dancers would anyone, ANYONE want to go and see that play? Again. Bin around for ages, it has, hell, rumours abound it was a favourite of Pontius Pilate. We’ve all been there haven’t we? Read the book, seen the film, bought the Che Guevara-type T Shirt.

We all know the story. We all know what happens. We all know the themes: authority blah, blah; conformity blah, blah; mechanisation blah blah; not to mention ‘er, all the other ones blah, blah, blah. We’re all aware it has shared the fate of all plays (and novels) deemed to be classics and subjected to school curriculums: being eroded down the decades to boil-in-the-bag bullet points.

And, let’s face it, there are the very plausible misgivings about bout the play version: it’s bin’ called dated, misogynistic, homophobic, sexist, plodding propaganda for a revolution that’s already been, theatrical comfort food that it scores its victories too easily at the expense of pantomime villain Nurse Ratched. Oh yeah: and racist too. Apparently. Understandably, many feel that in the half century or so since the play was written, other plays, other novels and other TV shows have dealt with the many and varied themes of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ in more depth and with much more subtlety.

How on earth can a theatre company bring anything new to the party and hope to hold the punters’ interest for over two hours. ‘Specially after the Christian Slater West End version (allegedly) bombed.

Impossible. Shirley.

A visit to see the Torch Theatre Company’s production of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ would seem as ill advised as a trip to the cellar in a low budget horror flick.

And yet…and yet…hang on a minute there.

While you wait for the action to begin you cannot help but notice the stunning set and the hypnotic night time lighting. You can’t not appreciate the haunting and minimalist incidental bluesy guitar music (apparently composed in-house by a member of the stage crew) lingering in the air.

Something is happening here. Something is definitely happening.

Then it hits you: the opening scene, the opening tableau. Thirty quiet, beautiful, inspired seconds. And that’s all it takes to blow you away, to make you forget all those doubts, all your misgivings.

The image of the inmates peering through the bars of the ward window in the middle of the night, the rest of the stage in blackness, is a framed painting or photograph but one in which the characters move, ever so slightly.

Picture one of those newspaper photographs in a Harry Potter film.

It’s a microcosm for the play that follows: understated, striking, natural, visually filmic, poignant, funny, inventive, original, detailed, just…well, just right: spot on, brilliant in both its simplicity and the way it sets the tone for what is to follow.

It’s not getting too carried away to say the tableau is so satisfying, you would happily pay to watch it for the next two hours and just listen to an audio recording of the rest of the play over it.

Of course, once you’ve seen that ‘gorgeous monster, The Chief, Chief Bromden open the play proper, in darkness, his voice pre-recorded and boomed out over the speakers, once you’ve seen the inmates’ hilarious entrance to the ward for the first time, one by one, to a perfect piece of muzak, you’re glad, so glad the play isn’t, in fact, just that opening tableau.

Because it means you get to enjoy spending the next two hours in the company of the rest of this terrific, absolutely superb, top-notch ensemble cast and their characters. And the sheer, full cream pleasure pleasure of being in that company is vital for this show to work.

The part of The Chief must have been a bugger to cast, for all sorts of reasons, but Andy Cresswell, thankfully, is, like all the other elements of this production, just right: the heft, the height, the gravitas, the stillness, the presence are all there to provide the framework for the show.

After he delivers one of the great key lines of the play (better actually than the original line in the novel), ‘…but, my God, there’s such a lot of things that are true even if they never really happen,’ we see him bullied by the two aides Warren and Williams, Connor Allen and Oraine Johnson, again just right in their loping, sneering menace; before, briefly, being exposed to just enough of Jenny Livsey’s creeping, steady-eyed poise as Nurse Ratched and Francesca Goodridge’s coy awkwardness to whet our appetite before the treat that is the first entrance of the inmates.

The characters of those inmates are recognisably defined and differentiated within seconds of their arrival.

Liam Tobin’s Dale Harding, sporting an Arthur Scargill-Bobby Charlton comb over with just a touch of Trump, is flamboyantly professorial and reluctantly effete, the polar opposite of newcomer Will Taylor’s stammering Billy Bibbit, beautifully doe-eyed, sweet smiling and so physically fragile.

Tobin’s Harding is at the heart of many of the memorable scenes. The therapy session in which he tries (and fails) to discuss his marital problems is laugh-out-loud fantastic, one of the many highlights of the show, partly because Tobin is so watchable you’d pay to see him open a crisp packet, but partly also because it would appear even from a cursory glance at the original script that director Peter Doran has made some huge changes, done some major re-writes which has improved the play beyond recognition.

Here Harding becomes the increasingly irascible centre of Cheswick’s mithering offers of support and Scanlon’s hilarious baiting, the intensity of the whole scene orchestrated so naturally to build to a feverish eruption of anger and energy, Warren and Williams having to restrain Dave Ainsworth’s Ruckly, who has somehow got involved.

It’s a scene that, like so many other scenes and features of this production, is worth the price of admission on its own.

There’s no Dr Spivey, deleted from both the scene and play, Cheswick’s part in the episode is completely different and more believable, Scanlon’s role is more prominent, his one-liners miles better, and Nurse Ratched’s ‘I think this has been very helpful,’ is a clever addition to signal the end of the scene and highlight the contrast in mood, the contrast in movement and stillness, action and quietness, all of which are features appearing throughout the whole play.

Dion Davies in a straight acting role as Cheswick with the whiney, spoilt-child voice might be a surprise to those more used to seeing him as the best pantomime dame in the western hemisphere. But it’s not a surprise to those who enjoyed his inventive and sumptuously seedy cameo appearance as Cherry Owen, the stand out performance by a country mile, in Kevin Allen’s recent-ish screen version of Under Milkwood.

Even more of a surprise is the appearance ON stage of white-bearded, wheelchair-bound Peter Doran as the cantankerous, grouchy, gnarly old bastard Scanlon, looking like a cross between Old Father Time, Captain Birdseye and some decrepit wizard or other.

Anyone in the audience old enough may remember him in Willy Russell’s great 80s TV series ‘One Summer’ (YouTube it), and enjoyed watching him as the North Walian pub bully to star David Morrissey. And there surely must be VHS cassettes of appearances in Men Behaving Badly or as Dirty Den’s cellmate in Eastenders floating about somewhere.

Here, Scanlon, a human bullsh*t detector, effin’ and blinding with a beautifully realised cheese-grater-in-the-whisky-soaked throat growl is an absolute joy and steals so many of the scenes with perfectly timed one-liners.

Is the white beard and the inspired addition of the motorised wheelchair some sort of ironic clue to signal this is Doran’s last acting role? On this evidence it would be a real shame if it were, but a peach of part to bow out on.

Rhodri Sion’s always nimble, mischievous and vacant Martini, wonderfully self effacing, and Dave Ainsworth’s bemused Ruckly, squinting into the offing like an old sea captain his face permanently on the edge of a high blood pressure explosion, expertly provide a platform for the more vocal characters in the piece like Tobin, Davies, Taylor, Livsey and Doran. Johnson and Allen, Goodridge and (later) Miriam O’Brien (a welcome burst of breathy energy in her two brief visits to the ward as Candy Starr) do the same.

And, of course, there’s no-one more vocal in this play than Richard Nichols who faces the unenviable task (again) of following in the shadow of Jack Nicholson in the central role of McMurphy. But seeing as Nichols is the actor who introduced full frontal male nudity to a west Wales theatre a few years back (unforgettable to anyone (cough) in the front row), having the cojones to play the part is clearly not a problem.

Long before the end of the show it is pertinent to point out that Nicholson’s coiled snake intensity has been forgotten in light of Nichols’ version of McMurphy: a vivacious, charismatic, often charming catalyst for change.

Thankfully, unlike Nicholson, you never feel Nichol’s McMurphy is a bully, self-regarding or, to use Pauline Kael’s description, ‘a Jock Christ’. Howell’s take on the character is itchy and irreverent yes, the eternal piss taker when it comes to authority, but somehow it’s altogether more vulnerable, more clearly conflicted (especially after the sudden realisation of his predicament) more collaborative, part of the team.

For the show to be a success you need a damn fine McMurphy and in Nichols you get a damn fine McMurphy, one who drives the narrative.

In fact, the flow of movement through the set during the entire two hours is remarkable, so very impressive, speeded up footage of the play perhaps the only way to fully appreciate it.

McMurphy’s interaction with Livsey’s Ratched and Cresswell’s Chief are also, of course, vital to the success of the show, and in both cases it’s another ten out of ten.

The beautifully lit night-time male bonding scene between Nichol’s McMurphy and Cresswell’s Bromden is tenderness itself without any hint of sentimentality, and the Chief’s simple first words, ‘thank you’, cause a rustling of hankies and not a few sniffles in the audience. As male bonding scenes go it is pretty damn unbeatable. As is the pre electro shock therapy conversation between the two when McMurphy utters the great line ‘you got to laugh especially when things ain’t funny…’ and The Chief smiles for the first time (cue more hankies, more sniffles).

And it is a nice feature of the play to see how many of the characters, as well as McMurphy and The Chief, breathe more freely in the deserted night time ward. Davies is particularly good in one of these, hilarious while simply putting up the party decorations, milking every second of the scene in which Oraine Johnson also doubles up so well as the aged, dope-smoking caretaker (presumably Aide Turkle).

One of the film’s achievements is to make all the characters interesting and rounded in spite of Nicholson’s grandstanding, and similarly one of the reasons for the success of this production is that Doran’s direction allows the quality of each of the actors’ characters to shine, no matter how long they are on stage for or how small the part.

It’s not overstating things to say that by the end of the show you’ve forgotten all about the film. It’s almost as if the characters, but especially the inmates, have become the audience’s tulpas: much of the laughter seems to be the laughter of self-recognition in the workings of ‘this society in miniature’.

Nurse Ratched is in many ways the most difficult role to carry off. But Livsey gets it just right, seemingly playing Ratched as an inflexible rule follower really believing she is doing the right thing for the benefit of the inmates; but behind her outer stillness there is variation and her character is hard to pin down. It’s significant that one of the few times she shows emotion, anger, it’s because she takes Bromden’s long deception personally, an affront to her moral code.

She is never some black and white panto villain, and her character is, therefore, all the more chilling. That steady-eyed poise, her varying inflections on the verbal motif, ‘that’s fine boys…just fine,’ the often cloyingly nauseating voice are all so well done.

Even when she deliberately manipulates Billy Bibbit, just as Billy seems to have found an inner defiance, so precipitating his suicide, it is testimony to Livsey’s performance that you still don’t feel she is out and out evil.

That scene with Taylor’s Billy, the little resigned looks away of the other inmates signalling they instinctively know his fleeting moment is gone, is truly heart-breaking, as is the sight of Taylor, particularly good here, then going back and for to the opposite ends of the spectrum of his character (similar to Harding and Cheswick earlier on) as his world closes in upon him and desperation kicks in.

In many ways the scene is even more gut wrenching than Billy’s subsequent demise or the finale with The Chief and McMurphy, yet again re-written, improved beyond all recognition and so well done.

It is hugely satisfying seeing such a large cast on stage and there is just so much to see and enjoy in this performance one viewing is never going to be enough.

There are so many details to savour: Francesca Goodridge’s metamorphosis from Nurse Flynn into good time girl Sandra; Allen and Johnson’s muttered extra bits of ad-libbed dialogue and their visible softening in the light of the excitement of the TV ball game; Tobin’s conducting of a sham marriage ceremony with Bibbit and O’Brien’s Candy Starr; Davies’s monk’s tonsure hair cut gone wrong: one eyebrow seemingly having made a failed bid for freedom; Scanlon’s polio or cerebral palsy twisted legs; his quiet hand on Goodridge’s behind during the ‘wedding’, his effin’ and muttering while going off in a huff in his wheelchair after being denied his TV rights; the cigarette scene, another newly written, with Harding, Martini, Cheswick and Scanlon at it’s laugh-out-loud centre; the wonderfully choreographed night time party with Scanlon orchestrating the hoe down from the nurses station; the party’s still life aftermath, a million times more visually effective than the anaemic original; Ainsworth’s Ruckly doddering around sipping alcohol from a hospital drip wearing a crown of thorns; Ainsworth’s hoarsely repeated line of dialogue; the unnamed actors who variously appear in the background corridor and conduct the electro shock therapy treatment; anything Tobin, Davies or Doran say; the lighting, the projections, and so on and so on…

Forget the film. Forget other productions of the play. Forget the novel (well, no, don’t forget the novel). This is the one. The only one. Standing ovation-tastic. Nobody in their right mind would want to bother seeing it again anywhere else after this. It’s simply that damn good.

The definitive production, the definitive performance, finally, of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. And no: not on Broadway, not in the silly old West End, but… at The Torch Theatre in west Wales, in a little town on the windy west coast there. Who’d have thought it, 54 years after ole Dale Wass-his-face put pen to paper in far away Wisconsin (or Arizona or wherever)? ‘Fair makes the ole brain reel’.

A fabulous piece of work. A hell of an achievement. A theatrical masterpiece, any day of the week, madam. In three words, bull goose brilliant.

Reviewed by: Tim Barrett

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