The shoes of arch-lunatic Jack Nicholson are challenging enough for any actor to fill, let alone a young one but, in the New Wolsey Young Company’s magnificent staging of Dale Wasserman's One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Steve Withers takes Nicholson’s cinematic role of Randal P. McMurphy, deconstructs it, rebuilds it from the ground up and makes it his own. It’s remarkable to have watched Withers evolve over the years from a baby-faced and wide-eyed child actor to an adult who can command the stage with a powerful and moving representation of a man caught up in the sometimes barbaric and dysfunctional mental health system of 1950s America.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a complex piece with a multi-layered dynamic among its characters, but the 16-strong cast create a believable immersive world where their audience become willing voyeurs to this attempted annihilation of the status quo.
McMurphy isn’t crazy, he’s a rebel with a cause and he’s determined not to let the system get the better of him. When he escapes a jail sentence for statutory rape by feigning psychosis, he’s sent to the Acute ward of Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital, which has become the personal fiefdom of alpha-female Nurse Rached.
At first, McMurphy’s effect on the other residents, the sexually inadequate Harding (Jack Brett), nervous and suicidal Billy Bibbit (Ben Warner), explosives-obsessed Scanlon (Liam Cadzow Webb), manic Cheswick (Ben Horrex), lobotomised Ruckley (an exquisitely observed performance from Oakey Hand), and the delusional Martini (Tom Chamberlain), seems as bipolar as some of the patients but, when McMurphy enters into a battle of wills with Lorna Garside’s frosty and dominating Rached, only one can emerge intact.
While McMurphy is determined to help his fellow inmates fight back against establishment oppression, his true cause becomes the apparently deaf-mute half-Native American, Chief Bromden, developed skilfully by a late addition to the cast, Ben Osborne.
Rob Salmon has set his actors a challenge and they have risen to it without flaw. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful and poignant representation of a world that is half a century, 5,000 miles, and a nightmare experience removed from A-Levels, iPads, and credit crunches. Each performance is astonishing in its detail and a fascinating insight into just how far young people can be stretched when given a robust topic to explore.
Salmon’s set – immersive and bleak – is a triumph. Presented in the round, the audience sits within the caged walls of the asylum while the action is played out inches in front of us.
In the 50 years since Ken Kesey first penned the novel from which Wasserman’s play is adapted, it has lost none of its impact or strength and the New Wolsey Young Company has done it proud.