When Ken Kesey’s debut novel was published in 1962 it was an instant hit and spawned a lauded theatrical production, one of the greatest movies of all time and countless other adaptations. It’s a brave choice then for the Garrick Ensemble to take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for only their second production.
A company of 18-to-30-year-old up-and-coming actors from the local area, the ensemble aims to produce a play a year on the main stage at the Altrincham Garrick Playhouse. It’s a chance to see local talent in innovative work before they proceed in their careers. This show certainly has talent in abundance but the ambition to create something fresh may have been lost in the scale and baggage of the story they’ve taken on.
Randle Patrick McMurphy (Joseph Morgan) is committed to a US psychiatric hospital although he has either faked or exaggerated his symptoms to avoid prison and hard labour. He joins a ward of patients split into two groups: acutes, those deemed worthy of treatment and chronics, men whose mental health issues are considered incurable.
The ward is overseen by the passive Doctor Spivey (Tom Broughton) and a set of orderlies and nurses. However, it is Nurse Ratched (Madeleine Healey) who rules the roost. Her mistreatment and manipulation represent the authority of the late-1950s setting, directly challenged by the changing attitudes of the decade that followed.
That rejection of control and embrace of difference is encapsulated in McMurphy’s rebellion, which is documented in the play through the narration of one supposedly deaf and dumb patient, Chief Bromden (Matthew Spilsbury).
Regular Garrick-goers will know the theatre prides itself in professional level sets, props, costumes and technical effects. They have done it again.
When the play opens, the audience are immediately transported to early morning on the ward, gorgeously atmospheric lighting illuminating a chair looking to the view that will never be enjoyed in person. A brilliantly decorated back office overlooks the day room, its glass windows foreshadowing the themes of observation and coercion. Spilsbury’s ominous narration transforms into a convincing psychiatric attack and then, slowly, the other patients and staff wake up and join the action.
It’s an ensemble performance in both aim and delivery. Though some of the actors have more to do or more words to deliver than others, they are all working together as one to tell this story.
Charlie Gallagher is standout as tortured Billy Bibbit, while Loui Quelcutti’s performance of Dale Harding is as much about what is not said as what is. Morgan is believable and truthful as McMurphy, impressive given the character has so much more life experience and comes from such a different background.
As Ratched, Healey successfully inhabits the infamous role but could afford to accentuate the creepy calmness to juxtapose the nervous energy of the patients she is controlling. Sadly, the ward orderlies feel a little juvenile and underdeveloped which occasionally takes the audience out of the story.
There are some fantastic set pieces that are the absolute highlights of this production. The World Series baseball scene at the end of Act One, the ‘wedding ceremony’ and party and Chief Bromden’s breakout are all brilliantly directed, complete with pyrotechnics and smashed doors.
An off-stage tragedy verges on melodrama, however, and feels too brief and cursory. Not helped by some abrupt music changes. That’s a shame because the emotional scenes that follow are beautifully acted.
In between the set pieces, the direction from Joseph Meighan does feel a little pedestrian. Too often in the quiet moments the production could do with more focus on the subtext, more ‘show, don’t tell’.
Overall, this is a really valiant attempt at taking on a classic. A true ensemble combining great performances and a level of technical expertise Garrick audiences have come to expect. It’s a thought-provoking transportation to another time but one can’t help but feel the scale of the work has prevented this production from being able to say something nuanced and fresh about the age we’re living in now.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest plays until Saturday 12th February, https://www.altrinchamgarrick.co.uk/shows/cuckoo/
Reviewer: Peter Ruddick
Reviewed: 7th February 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★