Review by Liam McKenna
A new arrival disrupts the daily routine and questions convention in this wonderful, comical and hard-hitting stage adaption of Ken Kesey’s classic portrayal of life on a psychiatric ward in the 1950s.
In this 40th anniversary Torch Theatre production we are transported back to the dark days of electro-shock therapy, with the aid of a fantastically authentic set complete with whitewashed prison bars and nurse’s office with a tannoy used to great effect. The play flits between the absurd and the dark with a comic thread holding it together. Laughter might be the best medicine but not according to a world that seeks to call out madness whenever it sees something different. And though the medical profession has moved on this story is still as relevant in 2017 as it ever was in its critique of mainstream society’s struggle to accept those who don’t conform to the perceived parameters of normality. This new adaptation couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.
The play centres around smooth-talking petty criminal McMurphy who pleads insanity to get out of going to jail. But it doesn’t take long before the loveable rogue (played superbly by Richard Nichols, reprising the role he played in 2002) comes face to face with the stern Nurse Ratched (Jenny Livsey) who sets out the many rules to which the patients must adhere in order to maintain their relatively cosy existence built around card games, smoking and TV time. So begins the metaphorical tug-of-war between bullying members of staff and the eclectic band of inmates, gradually led astray by McMurphy’s rebellious ideals. The play weaves cleverly between characters who share the stage for large parts of the show, inter-spliced with the brooding internal monologues of native American mute Chief Bromden (Andy Creswell). With such a big cast, keeping the background action moving while not overshadowing the main focus displays expert craft from director Peter Doran, who himself plays the bomb-obsessed wheelchair-bound Scanlon in an understated show-stealing role of comic brilliance.
The patients are each meticulously fleshed out and recognisable down to minute characteristics. Martini and Cheswick, played by Rhodri Sion and Dion Davies, stand out with particularly vivid performances. But each character brings a unique note to the whole piece, from Billy’s stuttering to Harding’s desperation to get his nicotine fix, and Ruckly’s bursts of obscenities, all of which works to create a beautiful symphony of human emotions, especially during the group therapy scenes with Livsey’s Nurse Ratched believably at her wit’s end.
It is a play very much of two halves, with the first patiently establishing characters followed by an action-packed second half where the harsh reality of the now-dated means of mental health treatment reaches its poignant and tragic conclusion. This is a bold, vibrant, at times violent play that holds nothing back in its depiction of the institutional abuse of power and the crossover into wider society.