If you like black humour, dramatic tension, great stage design and don’t mind venturing outside Zone 1, this is the play for you. The now infamous power play between McMurphy, the newly arrived patient on a psychiatric ward and Nurse Ratched, immortalised in the iconic film, is balanced well by the wide-eyed wonder the other patients feel towards McMurphy. Where the film is liable to focus too much on McMurphy and Ratched’s relationship, playing to its cruelty but also to its camp pantomime qualities, here director Paul Taylor-Mills manages to instil enough humour and humanity in this production to give the other patients a vivid and authentic voice.
Ratched and McMurphy are well played by Sean Buchanan and Annabel Capper, although at times their antagonism feels generic, detracting from the complex motives for their behaviour and the significance of the personal cost they exact from one another. Rather, it is the supporting cast that really brings the world of Ratched’s hospital to life. They are industrious, constantly busy, over-excited, painfully willing to be guided by Ratched, McMurphy or any other parody of authority they happen upon. When Dale Harding, President of the Patient Council, opens the play with ‘for the peace we are about to receive, may the Lord make us thankful’ before downing his tranquilisers, it is difficult to know how ironic he is being. The patients are clearly drawn, each with individual characteristics and preoccupations which help cast light on McMurphy and Ratched’s subtle manipulation of them: sometimes in kindness, sometimes in cruelty and most often in pure exasperation.
Likewise, good use is made of music- I found myself entirely sympathising with McMurphy, although one more rendition of Pollyanna and I would have been ready to fling myself under the Number 87 bus!
The set perfectly captures 1950s institutional America- gray, clean, too efficient. Mix that with the incessantly cheerful rock and roll playing over the top and you should be feeling unsettled before the first word is uttered. The lighting, too, is subtle and effective, the green lighting of the claustrophobic hospital contrasting well with the bright suggestion of sunlight from the upstairs window, which is made the symbol of freedom and integrity, the requisite ivy beautifully silhouetted against the sky.
Tom Munday’s animations are ingenious, beautiful and alternately delightful and unsettling. They operate as chapters, providing an alternative world to the grinding realism of the main action. Chief Bromden, the mute Native American, is given a voice in these sections as narrator and philosopher. He speaks beautifully and the overall effect is expertly augmented by the fantastical images of birds flying, the sun, moon and stars locked in a never-ending rotation.
All the while, Nurse Ratched sits in her central booth, tannoy in hand, surveying the furtive patients as they plot ways to gamble, drink and get laid. They fantasise about escaping but finally it is clear they have no real objection to being there, at which point their faith in McMurphy as a democratising antidote to Ratched’s authoritarianism wanes and his exasperation with them erupts.
McMurphy’s gradual meeting of his fate is well managed. At first the patients love him for his cynical joie de vivre. By the second half it is clear that what appeared to be a rejection of authority is simply ignorance borne of his belief that he, unlike them, had a release date in sight. The first big shift in McMurphy’s story comes when Harding explains to him the nature of his never-ending sentence. It is a powerful moment and to the Director’s credit that the pacing is good enough to make the scene - dangerously predictable to those who know the film - pack a punch. Once he realises he cannot escape, the power pours rapidly into the lap of Nurse Ratched. Where in the first half Ratched is locked in a painful fight for supremacy against McMurphy, by the second half she is in the ascendancy.
McMurphy’s decline from there is quick. As he allows fear to penetrate his well practiced facade, we see that he is trapped like a white lab rat as Nurse Ratched succeeds in exacting a very heavy price for his insubordination. His fear and desire to maintain his hold on life are allowed to seem valiant, even noble as he is symbolically sacrificed, slipping into the shadows as Chief Bromden escapes to the freedom McMurphy craves. The scene in which the shock therapy is applied is the final tipping point and the performances, pace and design come together very well to make the violence feel palpable. The small stage at LOST Theatre seems to contain a world of horrors in the capable hands of this impressive creative team.