Sunday, March 23, 2014


Adaptation from Ken Kesey's novel by Dale Wasserman
Directed by Tom O'Neill
The Acting Company in association with Shadowhouse Pits
The Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre
March 18 - 29, 2014

Review by Len Power 18 March 2014

It seems everyone knows the 1975 film of Ken Kesey’s novel, ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ with its memorable performance in the central role of Randle P. McMurphy by Jack Nicholson.  As a result, any actor playing this role now faces the challenge of comparison with that film performance.  The performance of Louise Fletcher as the formidable Nurse Ratched is also etched indelibly in people’s minds from the film version.

Based on the 1962 novel, the play adaptation by Dale Wasserman was produced on Broadway in 1963 with Kirk Douglas in the leading role.  An exploration of individualism and rebellion against conformity, its setting amongst inmates in the type of psychiatric institution hopefully long gone was inspired, creating an opportunity for strong, involving and ultimately chilling drama.

The rather clich├ęd characters of the inmates at the beginning of the play was a concern but the actors in this production were able to show more depth and sustain their characterisations as the play progressed.  Well cast physically, Ben Drysdale, in the challenging role of Randle P. McMurphy, gave a strong performance that could have done with more light and shade in his vocal delivery in the first half, but which was highly effective after interval as the drama deepened.  barb barnett as the formidable Nurse Ratched played the role with a quiet intensity but her energy levels and voice volume wavered here and there.

Amongst the inmates, Paul Robertson was outstanding as Chief Bromden, and Joshua Bell as the sad Billy Bibbit was very moving.  Actually, in this large cast, every actor was well-chosen and gave strong, committed performances.

The set design by Charlotte Stewart effectively evoked a psychiatric institution of the time that lacked any human touches for the inmates.  The lighting design by Michael Richards complemented the action as did the sound design by Evan Croker and the costumes by Kaila Smith were suitably dowdy and looked well-lived in.  The live music accompaniment by composer/pianist, Steven Bailey, was an excellent idea and added much to the atmosphere.

Director, Tom O’Neill, has produced a thoughtful, well-staged production of this now classic story.  His good work on characterisations becomes clear as the play progresses.  The second half is particularly involving.  You come out of this play thinking, ‘Surely this kind of thing can’t happen today?’  And, unsettlingly, you know deep down that it can.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 21 March 2014.

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