first night

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Caitlin McEwan flies over to Hild Bede to review HBT's latest production


Many will be familiar with Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Another, perhaps smaller sect will be acquainted with Ken Kesey’s brilliant novel of the same name, from which the film is adapted. Few, however, will have encountered its stage incarnation, which predates the film but does not hold the same cult status, with its last major revival on Broadway in 2001. Its relatively paltry success in comparison to the film seems strange given that it works so well on stage, as shown by last night’s effort from Hild Bede Theatre, which was a solid evening with some very good moments.


Director Hannah Brennan and Assistant Director Henry Fell make innovative use of Caedmonn Hall, eschewing the proscenium arch in favour of a studio-style thrust stage created from rostra. This created an effective sense of intimacy and immersion which was capitalised on from the outset: the actors were pre-set lining the audience space, encapsulating the oppressive and enclosed environment of the mental hospital. In fact, this overarching idea was present throughout, even in smaller details such as the tickets, which are suggestive of hospital wristbands, highlighting an attention to detail on the part of the production team which must be highly commended.


However, this undoubtably interesting and unusual staging was not without its problems.  The stage space was noisy, which meant that moments such as Cheswick (Kwasi Yeboah) sneaking up on Aide Warren (Corinna Harrison) lost some of its intended weight. Likewise, there were several problems with sightlines, most prominently when McMurphy is dragged to a bed that is effectively offstage, and which can only really be seen by the central bank of audience members.


The excellent script is played well on the whole by the company, with a few stand-out performances. Madness is incredibly hard to portray convincingly, and on several occasions the cast veered towards pastiche, but Ben Morris, as Billy Bibbet, remains believable and sympathetic throughout. As Chief Bromden, Rory Barnes’ resonant speaking voice is reminiscent of Forrest Gump – although he is much more unsettling, and I have to stress that I mean this entirely in a complimentary sense. Jordan Millican also performs well as Dale Harding, although he was sometimes a little too overtly effeminate, which detracted from his performance. In addition, the choice to use his natural Irish accent rather than an American one seemed an odd and initially confusing choice, as it raised questions about his background that are never resolved simply because he is never usually portrayed as foreign.


Edward Wheatley had a considerable task in playing the lead role of R.P. McMurphy, and he was extremely promising, although I felt that he was to some degree a victim of first-night nerves, meaning that the ease and confidence of his character did not come through as strongly as it could have. However, I have no doubt that his performance will improve in the course of the run.


The female cast members also perform well. Lily Morgan gave what I felt was the stand-out performance of the evening as Nurse Ratched, with a rigid physicality that matched her steely depiction of a woman who gives nothing away. Although she has very little stage time, Georgina Armfield is also convincing and memorable as the prostitute Candy Starr, giving a performance that is believably aloof and self-assured.


Considering they had such a short rehearsal period, I think HBT have done extremely well in putting together a watchable and entertaining evening of theatre. There were, as I have previously mentioned, a few problems, primarily with the staging, but also with the energy of the piece, which occasionally lagged, notably at the start of the second act. However, as with all first night reviews, I can say with some assurance that this production will become more taut and cohesive in the course of its run, and in this respect I recommend it wholeheartedly. 

13 June 2014

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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