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 The Theatreguide.London Review


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Gielgud Theatre Autumn-Winter 2004; Garrick Theatre (with cast changes) Spring-Summer 2006

Another Hollywood star come to spend a few months in the West End, but this time, unusually if not uniquely, the trip is successful. Christian Slater offers a thoroughly satisfying portrayal of Ken Kesey's Randall Patrick McMurphy, and if not all of the rest of the production is up to his level, this revival of Dale Wasserman's stage version of the book is well worth a visit.

Kesey's novel of a petty criminal serving his sentence in a psychiatric hospital was actually part of a popular genre of plays and novels of the 1940s and 1950s, in which a free-spirited newcomer entered a closed world (hospital, retirement home, small town) and inspired the inmates to rebel; the genre continued in such films as Footloose.

Kesey's twist - and it was just this that the hippies that made the book a cult hit in the 1960s chose to ignore - is that his hero loses, as the establishment he fights ultimately has all the power.

Many will know the book primarily from the 1975 film, in which Jack Nicholson gave a characteristically over-the-top performance as McMurphy. Christian Slater has sometimes been accused of copying Nicholson's mannerisms, but he shows considerable discipline and acting ability as he avoids them here and finds his own very effective way into the character.

Instead of coming on with all guns blazing from the start, Slater makes McMurphy an ordinary small-time hustler just trying to get by, who only gradually becomes politicised in the course of the play. Though less flashy than the Nicholson approach, this is far more realistic and interesting, as the character grows and develops and the actor has something to do.

A bonus of Slater's approach to the central character is the freedom it gives Frances Barber in playing Nurse Ratched, his adversary. Because McMurphy doesn't come on as a whirlwind, she doesn't have to counter as the Wicked Witch of the West. Rather, she gives Big Nurse the quiet self-control of one who knows she has all the power, only gradually letting us discover beneath it the insane calm of the fanatic.

So the two central figures in this drama are played in fresh and powerful ways, making the perhaps over-familiar story come alive. Unfortunately, that's almost the only good thing I have to say about the production, and a bit of background into its history may explain why almost everyone and everything else about it doesn't work.

This revival was originally conceived by a fringe director for a run at the Edinburgh Festival and possible tour afterwards, and with that in mind was cast largely with stand-up comics - the same director had had great success using the same device (and some of the same people) in a production of Twelve Angry Men last year.

But in the course of development, the show acquired a Hollywood star and West End producers. The original director was edged out (He gets the tiniest of mentions in the back of the programme), two new directors - Terry Johnson and Tamara Harvey - took over, and the Edinburgh run became just a warmup for this West End production.

Two effects of this not-all-that-unusual story remain. The supporting cast of comics-turned-actors are almost without exception in nowhere near the same league as the stars, and the quality gap in acting is sometimes embarrassing. And they haven't really been shaped into an ensemble - too many of the second-string loonies in this loony bin are so busy showing off their repertoire of loveable tics and eccentricities that they are constantly upstaging each other and the central characters.

Mackenzie Crook does a nice job as the shy and stuttering Billy Bibbitt, and Brendan Dempsey has an attractive presence as Chief Bromden, though he is stuck with some embarrassingly arty and badly directed monologues. Almost everyone else is best served by not being named.

Keep your eye on the central characters, in other words, and you will find much to admire about this production.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Gielgud 2004