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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Dale Wasserman, adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey
Chickenshed
Chickenshed

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Credit: Daniel Beacock
Nurse Ratched (Belinda McGuirk) and McMurphy (Olivier LeClair) Credit: Daniel Beacock
Billy (Finn Walters) and Nurse Ratched (Belinda McGuirk) Credit: Daniel Beacock

Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), Dale Wasserman’s theatrical adaptation of 1963 and the film version of 1975 rode a wave of discontent with the treatment of the supposed mentally ill and became a key story of the 1960s counterculture which regarded all institutions as suspect.

Belinda McGuirk gives a strong, sympathetic performance as Head Nurse Ratched controlling those in her care with daily doses of chemicals and a supposed therapy which looks more like shaming sessions to undermine self worth. And if all that fails, there is always electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and surgical lobotomy.

The ward orderlies seem to enjoy being cruel and everywhere there are the signs of control in a set designed by Robin Don.

Prominent stage left is a nurse’s station from which the occupant can see everything taking place in the ward and have quick access to a microphone that can boom out instructions to anyone deviating from the norm.

Above the ward is a slanting ceiling with a padlocked window. Large pipes stretch the width of the stage carrying the wires controlling entry and exit.

Into this gloomy medical straightjacket arrives the spirit of 1960s rebellion in the form of Olivier LeClair as the wild-eyed humorist Randle Patrick "Mac" McMurphy. And yes, he does remind you of the iconic Jack Nicholson film performance.

It immediately bothers Mac that patients turn their frustrations against each other. He tells them they are like a “bunch of chickens at a peckin party.”

Nurse Ratched would be no match for Mac’s subversive creativity which charms patients and the doctor, but at her back stands the might of the institution ready to force deviants in line.

The dignified patient Chief Bromden (Bradley Davis) knows this only too well from personal experience which has led him to pretend not to hear or speak as a way of dodging what he refers to as the combine.

When Mac encourages the patients to make their own decisions, it brings him into conflict with Nurse Ratched.

The story’s gender politics are a pain but its liberationist themes are moving, funny and, despite the casualties of the clash, ultimately uplifting.

Chickenshed’s thoughtful, well paced-production does entertaining justice to a fine play.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna