One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Review 1

By Bev Clark for North West End

High energy last night at Bebington Dramatic Society’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starting its run at the Gladstone Theatre until Saturday.

Many will still remember the famous Oscar-winning film, but it was originally a novel (1962) by Ken Kesey, which was adapted for the stage the following year by Dale Wasserman. The play continues to be performed around the world after 70yrs.  This story of rebellion against authority, instigated by the anarchic, time-bomb that is McMurphy, has a lot to say about mental health in a US psychiatric ward, showing both the brutality and humour of the ‘therapeutic community.’  

Director James Kay has brought together a strong local cast to recreate these unforgettable characters.  An excellent set which uses the stage well, with a window into the nurse’s office, we are transported to the patients’ dayroom. An atmospheric soundscape really sets the tone but when Chief was speaking his monologue it was a bit loud and some words were lost, which was a shame because these sections of narration were a highlight.  This being the first night, it can easily be adjusted. Good use of lighting contributed to the dramatic scenes.

Chief Bromden, a half- Native American (Simon Garland) is believed to be deaf and dumb, so is largely ignored and becomes almost invisible, apart from when the orderlies tease and pick on him.  Chief has moments as the narrator, telling us about the arrival of Randle McMurphy who is to change his life.  Garland gives us the moments of stillness in the play, which are very much needed and gains our sympathy. It is he who becomes the ‘one’ who flies in the end: the title having been taken from an old childhood rhyme.

Into this world of paranoia, hallucinations and lost souls comes McMurphy (Richard Dodd) who is a criminal, a con man, a gambler and alleged rapist. Dodd has the bully-swagger, the arrogance but we also see his genuine care for the fellow inmates. Although labelled as a psychopath, McMurphy sees time in the ward as the easier option to the work farm. Dodd’s performance is very energetic, physical and totally committed but sometimes the level of intensity was so much it was suffocating, it needed moments of calm and change. McMurphy may not be mad, but he acts insanely but you can be menacing and powerful with a look or a quiet word too. The duologue between him and Chief in Act 2 showed as more of his three-dimensional character. Dodd does show the manipulation but also the joy of life because he is after all, the saviour that will free these men, even though that freedom is short lived.

The matriarchal Nurse Ratched (Charlotte Cummings) who rules the ward with a soft voice but iron fist, sees McMurphy for the troublemaker he is.  Cummings perfectly captures her restraint and poise, with her calm patronizing voice and not-a-hair-out-of-place serene façade.  But underneath there is a hint of menace and control. She holds her staff, even the doctor, into submissiveness.  The inmates comply without question. But her real viciousness is shown in her actions: punishments such as electric shock therapy and even worse, as we later find out.  This is an assured portrayal of this complex woman but maybe she could savour her victory of McMurphy more in the final scene.

Billie Bibbit, played believably by Liam Carr, is the shy stuttering boy wanting his mother’s approval – and oh! how Ratched uses that power over him!  The poor boy is still a victim of McMurphy’s over-zealous pairing him with a prostitute, which ultimately leads to a tragedy. Carr gives a good stab at the boy’s vulnerability and helplessness.

The prostitute Candy (Alex Wharton) has the confidence and vigor needed, as well as looking the part. Her street accent was good even if it was more Brooklyn than Oregon, but all the character’s accents were a mixed-American cacophony and that really didn’t matter, as there’s nothing to say they were all from Oregon. Wharton’s physicality was just right, and she handled the seducing of Billy well.

Kay directs his ensemble with precision giving them plenty of business – an energetic ball game, an amusing card game but the constant stacking of chairs was a little distracting in places. The supporting cast touched on the strange personality traits of the inmates but maybe there was room for even more exaggeration in places, to see their vulnerabilities as well as their humour. We just need to feel sorrier for them. Kevin Fishwick’s Harding has some fidgets and impediments that were believable.  It’s a challenge for such a large cast to be able to give each character their moment but that development would help us understand McMurphy’s desire to free them.

In the end this play is a tragedy. It’s shocking conclusion showing us how one person’s authority can rule so many pathetic lives. Kay and his team do a good job in bringing it to life and giving us some memorable moments and audiences will appreciate seeing this iconic piece of theatre.   An energetic production with some strong performances.