‘Sense of finesse and polish’

Review: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Martina O’Farrell

Fresh from their nationwide success last year with comedy ‘The Lonesome West’, Mullingar Theatre Lab staged ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ last week in Mullingar Arts Centre. Taking on such a well known stalwart of drama, while admirable on the one hand, is also fraught with danger. While it’s a certainty to put bums on seats, unless you have something new to bring to the table, you run the risk of exposing yourself to comparisons with previous productions and audiences can be ruthlessly loyal to their favourites. There are some directors out there who relish this challenge and even some brave souls who succeed.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was originally written as a book in the early 1960s and shortly thereafter adapted for the stage and ran to great reviews on Broadway [with Kirk Douglas playing McMurphy], but it really entered the mainstream conscience with the release of the Hollywood movie, starring Jack Nicholson and funded by producer, Michael Douglas.

I guess the Douglas family had an eye for a winning script and the film was so hugely successful, winning four Academy awards, it’s safe to say their gamble paid off!

The play is set in a psychiatric hospital which still employs electro shock treatment and lobotomy as ways of ‘curing’ mental illness, even though both treatments have fallen out of favour with the medical community, and centres on a particular ward run by the harsh and possibly sadistic ex-army, Nurse Ratched.

Suffice to say that if the writer hadn’t peppered the script with moments of brilliant humour, maybe nobody would have sat through the whole play. As McMurphy so aptly puts it: ‘You just gotta laugh, especially when there ain’t nuthin’ funny.’

The pivotal role of Randle Patrick McMurphy, sent down for drinking, fighting, gambling and womanising (I won’t even mention Irish stereotypes in the USA) is taken on by Alan Conroy, who is assisted by others also reprising their roles – John ‘Banjo’ Quinn as Charles Cheswick and Paul Doolin as Anthony Martini.

This trio of actors have a wealth of experience (and awards) between them and they delivered strong and convincing performances.

‘Medication time’

Nurse Ratched was well played by Maedhbh Hughes, at times her sadism contained in her whispery voice, more chilling than a roar. I found her spotlessly white tights and shoes quite terrifying, something about their silent soles padding about the ward striking fear into the hearts of those poor vulnerable souls.

Paul Downes as Chief Bromden, the narrator, was a perfect blend of immense physical stature and innate gentleness and a great piece of casting. Another new face to Mullingar Theatre Lab, but not to the stage, Martin Mills played Dale Harding (suffering mental health issues due to his repressed sexuality). How relevant that topic still is 60 years on; it should give us all pause for thought.

Martin was the instigator of much of the laughter throughout the night and is one of those actors who just has funny bones and a truly expressive face, surely a prerequisite for any great comedic actor.

I’m thinking here of Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey.

The sympathetic but ultimately doomed character of Billy Bibbit was played by Billy Gilleran on the night I was there, and this young man really is developing into a fine actor – great diction and vocal delivery and a mature awareness of what’s going on around him at all times. Not for Billy to wait to be fed his lines, he was a subtle and understated joy to watch.

Credit is due to the whole cast, I also thoroughly enjoyed Richie Geoghegan as Frank Scanlon, Ian Ryan as Ruckly and Joe Earley as the Walker.

I have previously admired director Dan E Hyland’s work and this production has not disappointed. There is a sense here of finesse and polish that are not easy to achieve with such a play, and they point to many weeks of rehearsals.

One constructive critique going forward – and I know there are plans to take this production on tour – would be to perhaps spend some time with a linguistics coach. If it’s going to be true to its origins, it should be across the board. Some of the cast didn’t grasp the American accent at all while others did and it unfortunately detracted from the general cohesion, for me anyway.

Overall production was of a high standard, the set, props, costumes and lighting. Great work by the stage manager, Marie Brennan, and I can only imagine the team of people behind the scenes who worked so hard to get this play off the ground.

Monday of last week was opening night and it was also the day that much loved and multi talented Grace Brennan passed away.

Grace had been Mullingar’s original Nurse Ratched and will be sadly missed by all who knew her. The opening performance was dedicated to her, which was a really nice gesture.

Mullingar Theatre Lab have a core team of dedicated members with a drive and energy to produce top class theatre for modern audiences and are consistently improving. They also seem to have the knack of picking the right play and staying true to a great script. Not a bad recipe for the future! I applaud them and wish them continued success.

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