One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Jennie Sharpe

ZENITH THEATRE: Epicentre Theatre Company aim big with their staging of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and for the most part they hit the right notes.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
With their usual ambition and enthusiasm, amateur theatre company Epicentre is tackling Dale Wasserman’s famous One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Adapted from the classic novel by Ken Kesey, Wasserman’s play delivers the major punches of the book whilst also managing to provide strong hints of the deeper currents that flow beneath the action. In director Ben Lenzo’s hands, these currents are sometimes a little hard to sense but this production is nevertheless strong and entertaining, thanks mainly to a fine lead performance from Dave Woodland as Randle McMurphy – the character that won Jack Nicholson his first Oscar.

A disturbing and horrific indictment of the harsh practices in US mental institutions in the 1960s, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest revolves around the struggle between a group of patients and the head nurse on their ward, Nurse Ratched. Ratched rules with a velvet-gloved iron fist, using passive aggressive psychological manipulation to control the patients in her care. But, when Randle McMurphy – who is either a psychopath or merely a criminal faking mental instability to escape a prison work farm – arrives, she meets her match.

As the power-hungry, manipulative Ratched, real-life nursing unit manager Suzy Wilds lacks some of the character’s disturbing sweetness, but still does a nice turn as a control freak. Woodland, as her nemesis, is a delight to watch. Hilariously crass, uninhibited and egotistical, in his hands McMurphy is also intuitively wise and genuinely, if roughly, kind – a complex mixture of elements always threatening to erupt.

The third point of this triangle is Cheyne Fynn as Chief Bromden, the seemingly deaf and dumb narrator whose powerful, poetic interludes of soliloquy chart the deep-seated evils of institutionalism. Fynn’s gentle stage presence detracts a little from the centrality of his character, but his delivery is ever haunting.

David J. Owens as the repressed but eloquent Dale Harding gives a fine performance, though somewhat lacking in lights and shades. Of the other supporting actors, Gretchen Mach as the ditsy prostitute is a standout while Geoff McLean, as the catatonic, perpetually crucified Ruckley, is consistently disturbing.

Sam Boneham’s stuttering Billy Bibbit, Felix Carlyle’s would-be bomb-maker Scanlon and Robert Sharpe’s Cheswick all hit the right notes as patients decidedly under Ratched’s thumb. Only David Vilanti, as the hallucinating Martini, hammed it up a little too often in a production that, overall, sometimes took too light a touch.

Dave Kirkham was delightfully naïve as the doctor, also firmly under Ratched’s thumb, while Matt Cook and Ben von Sperl did nice jobs as the aides.

Although some notes, such as the sudden introduction of music at the end, are a little off key, this production is generally fine. With its minimalist, frosty set and simple lighting design, it is an entertaining and unsettling rather than overly disturbing exploration of the tale which – considering the subject matter – is almost a relief.

Rating: 3 stars

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
By Ken Kesey/adapted by Dale Wasserman
An Epicentre Theatre Company production
Director: Ben Lenzo
Cast: Sam Boneham, Heather Campbell, Felix Carlyle, Iseult Champion, Matt Cook, Cheyne Flynn, Dave Kirkham, Gretchen Mach, Geoff McLean, David Owens, Robert Sharpe, David Vilanti, Ben von Sperl, Suzy Wilds, David Woodland.

Zenith Theatre
November 4–12, 2011

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Jennie Sharpe is a poet, freelance writer and editor. She has published a collection of poetry in the book Australia: Facing the South and is also a novelist and short story writer. Jennie studied literature and theatre and is a classically trained musician. She is passionate about film, theatre, opera and visual art and is currently a sub-editor and contributor for French Provincial magazine.