Friday, March 26, 2010


King Edward VI School, Chelmsford


Ken Kesey's novel is best known in the Jack Nicholson cinema version. On stage, it presents challenges to actors and to audience, the artifice of the stage showing up some of the shortcomings of plot and character development.

So a bold choice for a school production, but one which paid off, I felt, allowing a huge cast to extend their talents and to work together to create an impressive ensemble piece.

David Woolford charmed his way through McMurphy's disgraceful behaviour; always on the move, everyone's buddy, making waves and inciting riot. A memorable performance. Amongst the other characters, three stood out. Chris Smith's self-harming mother's boy, shy, stuttering and totally believable. Jimmy Murphy, as Harding, the “head bull-goose loony” deposed by McMurphy's arrival, with his nervous, insecure, body language, and Robert  Wickham's Chief, a tall, imposing Native American whose dreams punctuate the play.

The manipulative, sadistic Nurse Ratched was confidently played by Carlotta Manzi Davies.

But every cast member gave the production 100%, always in character, always watchable, haunted faces and lunatic hair.

The white walls, the strip lights, the echoing ward and the piped Muzak all helped sustain an edgy, volatile atmosphere. As McMurphy says, as good as any movie.

production photos by Sam Brown

1 comment:

Michael Gray said...

and this is what appeared in the KEGS Newsletter:

“Basically, they're all mad, and some people die.”

Couldn't have summed it up better than this junior boy, overheard as we all streamed out of the auditorium, stunned by James Russell's d├ębut production at KEGS.

Even before Chief Bromden's portentous entrance, it was clear from the fragmented set, with its neon lights and white walls, that this was going to be a stylish interpretation. I liked the white-clad staff with their dapper dicky bows, the tinkling bell and the relentless tannoy.

Robert Wickham's Chief was amazing. Deep, classical tones, chiselled, gaunt features, and a poignant stillness. As the hated, tyrannical Nurse Ratched, Carlotta Manzi Davies was brusque, almost casually brutal towards her patients. Jack Preston was a dapper doctor, creepily anxious to please the inmates. Two sinister figures walked slowly across the stage: Ayokunle Adeke's bent orderly, and Edward Sainsbury's soulless technician – his nonchalant stillness a powerful contrast with the convulsions he has caused.

Without exception, the patients, chronic and acute, were credibly portrayed. It would only have taken one less than believable inmate to ruin the atmosphere, but everyone had clearly worked long and hard on his character, from the Colonel and his chums in kindergarten corner, to the top of the pecking order, Jimmy Murphy's president of the patients' council. That is until Randle P McMurphy arrives, with his shades, his hat and his feigned psychosis.

This central role asks a lot of any actor. David Woolford had the confidence and the chutzpah it needed; gambling, fomenting unrest, needling the staff, he was constantly on the move, and if, like many of the actors, he sacrificed clarity to character, this only enhanced the realism that was a feature of the production.

The stage pictures, helped by atmospheric lighting, were often striking. The ball game, the grouping for the attempt at lifting the cabinet, the medication line, parodied later at the party.

All of the actors deserve detailed analysis and particular praise. But I've only space to single out a handful.

Pippa Bugg as the brash tart who brings an ambivalent reminder of the world outside the asylum walls.
Jimmy Murphy's Harding, insecure, twitchy, a conformist at heart, nervously pushing up his sleeves.
Josh Delfgou's Scanlon, quiet unless roused; Tim Blore's Martini, physically irrepressible; Neil Saptarshi's loud-mouthed Cheswick.
And perhaps most moving of all, Billy Bibbit [Chris Smith], suicidally insecure, his speech impediment like a desperate rap, the liberation McMurphy brings fatally crushed by Ratched.

The ending, like the beginning, was very powerful. The inmates huddled together, remembering the good times, while the lobotomised free spirit is left in the merciful hands of the Chief. Who then succeeds where McMurphy failed, and smashes his way to sanity and freedom.

Kesey's novel is now a classic, and KEGS Drama made it an impressive piece of theatre; it was especially pleasing to see in this successful ensemble some talented newcomers to whole-school drama.

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