The bleak and troubling history of the treatment of mental health will arguably always pique our morbid curiosity. From lobotomies to electric shock therapy, the endless catalogue of questionable treatments will continue to haunt us as we become more informed on the diagnosis of illnesses and care of mental health patients today.
Based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, most of us will only be familiar with Jack Nicholson’s garish grin as the bad boy gambler and persistent convict Randle P. McMurphy. McMurphy accepts a stint in a mental institution as an alternative to prison farming. It’s there he is subjected to the rules and regulations with which he is usually unfamiliar. The strict rules of the ward are passive aggressively enforced by Nurse Ratched, a figure of authority against who McMurphy instinctively wants to rebel. The story follows the inmates of the ward and the chaotic repercussions of McMurphy’s arrival.
Directed by Peter Doran (who also stars in the production as wheelchair-bound Scanlon), the large cast and impressive set is a true celebration of Torch Theatre, on the 40th anniversary of its opening. Sean Crowley’s set is impressive, atmospheric, enhanced by the moody sounds of 1950’s Deep Sounds playing in the background, lit harshly with its mint green tiles and sterile white walls. There is also the use of a corridor which is used for doctors and patients to walk through, a small yet realistic touch. It is in this corridor in which we first see the large ensemble cast, peering through the bars in a comic way.
The action is narrated by the ‘mute and dumb’ Chief, a Native American inhabitant of the institution who has been there longer than anyone, and through this device we learn of his suppression, both as a Native American in a contemporary American society and also as a patient of Ratched’s ward. This narration works perfectly for the play; the Chief’s booming voice fills the auditorium as he absent-mindedly sweeps the floor. Andy Creswell as the Chief is impressively huge in stature and creates a physical sense of foreboding throughout the play. Richard Nichols expertly captures the two sides of McMurphy; the mischievous, infectious comedian and the frustrated, aggressive convict. Will Taylor is superb as the stammering Billy Bibbit; his performance is particularly poignant at the play’s climax. Jenny Livsey delivers a convincing performance as Nurse Ratched, emotionally cold and calculating.
It’s difficult to stage something as intense as electric shock therapy, but with the use of an internal door which pushes the uncomfortable action to the very front of the stage and effective strobe lighting, the scene is both shocking and authentic. The production is long at nearly three hours (including interval), and some scenes would have benefited from some streamlining, but Doran has found the perfect balance between comedy and drama. The performances are solid and combined with the incredibly effective set, this production is worthy of celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Torch Theatre.
This production is on until Oct 28th at Torch Theatre in Milford Haven. For more details visit their website.