Cuckoo’s Nest at its Best

Richard Price and Luke Reynolds in Townsville Little Theatre's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' IMAGE: Martin Hodgson

Luke Reynolds scares me.

In many cases, that would be cause for concern – but knowing that he plays the iconic R.P. McMurphy in Townsville Little Theatre’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it should be even more reason for audiences to flock to this show.

I must admit, I have been one of the few who avoided the book in high school and who has never seen the Jack Nicholson movie. I walked into the Pimlico Performing Arts Centre last night with no expectations and limited knowledge of the storyline – apart from that there was a hooker, Candy Starr, played by HUXLEY’s Editor-slash-thespian Sarah Mathiesen. But by the time I walked out, I was speechless.

Firstly, I must congratulate Townsville Little Theatre (TLT) and Cuckoo’s directors Alan Cooke and Donna Clayton-Smith on one of the largest opening night audiences we’ve seen at PIMPAC. The available seating filled up, before late arrivals added more rows of chairs at the back and down the sides of the theatre.

We’ve loved watching TLT toy with their pre-show staging: last year, Christine Scott’s A Christmas Carol utilised ‘living Christmas cards’ to fill the space and welcome the audience into Dickens’ world – and in Cuckoo, there’s no doubt we’re about to set foot in an asylum, with the patients going about their everyday lives on stage as the theatre filled up. Then the doors closed, the lights dimmed, and the show began.

As an ensemble, this cast is incredibly strong: each of the hospital’s inmates caught my attention at various points as their own journeys in the narrative unfolded. Particular mention has to go to Zhane Walker, tackling his second production with TLT and taking on the role of stuttering and self-harming Billy Bibbit. Despite being admitted into a ward of experienced actors, Zhane held his own and was one of the most heartbreaking characters to watch. His moment to shine, standing up to Nurse Ratched (Kath Hotschilt) in the second act showed how Billy had changed throughout the show, and was one of the most obvious examples of how Ratched domineered the hospital and bent the patients’ wills to align with her own – only to turn the blame onto others when things took a turn for the worse.

Zhane Walker and Luke Reynolds in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ IMAGE: Martin Hodgson

Kath Hotschilt’s Ratched is honestly rat shit, in the nicest way possible. From Kath’s first entrance, her power over the space was obvious and the steady dynamic of her voice left you feeling uneasy. Kath plays a villain almost too well and the changing attitudes of the patients in her presence builds on the fear induced by her even more.

The production is a wonderful contrast of serious and comedic, with wonderful performances by Jeremy Naughton as the night watchman and Damien Jackson as the quiet (most of the time), fly-on-the-wall patient Ruckly both leaving the audience laughing. I’m sure there would be some sort of union chasing me down with pitchforks if I commented on how well my boss portrayed a prostitute, but I will say it was a side to Sarah I’d never seen in the office – and watching the juxtaposition between Candy’s loose-ness and Billy’s timidness as they interacted was very entertaining.

There were the usual opening night teething problems with one or two lines stumbled over, lights fading mid-scene, and a couple of characters glancing at the audience between lines. But in the intermission and after the show, they weren’t what people remembered – everyone was talking about Luke Reynolds.

Luke, donning the cap of R.P. McMurphy, was loud. He was over-the-top. And as the play progressed, he became frightening. We watch him develop from cheerfully greeting his fellow psychotic inmates to discovering the truth about why they’re there and going above and beyond to make Nurse Ratched’s last nerve snap. Responsible for a lion’s share of the dialogue, Luke carried the story and kept up the pace of the production. Even if you’ve seen the movie, read the book, and been along to a hundred remakes, this one is worth watching for Luke’s take on McMurphy alone. The set is marvellous, the sound design clever and the cast as a whole are phenomenal – but when Luke is on that PIMPAC stage, he owns it. Go and find out why.

Catch Townsville Little Theatre’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Pimlico Performing Arts Centre, with daily shows from now until Saturday at 7:30pm and a Saturday matinee at 2pm, with tickets available here

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