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 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.