One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Review 2006

Wednesday, 29 March, 2006
Review by: 
Peter Brown

This production started out life at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2004. From there (as is often the case) it made its way southwards to London at the end of 2004 for a season at the Gielgud Theatre that lasted until early the following year. But there was obviously unfulfilled demand because the play’s now returned for another season, this time at the Garrick.

By coincidence, I spent last evening watching Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical 'Whistle Down The Wind' that’s also based on a successful book and film. And here we've got a near identical line up, because 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ is based on the 1962 book of the same name, written by Ken Kesey and made into a film in 1975 by Miloš Forman, starring Jack Nicholson who turned-in an unmissable performance in the lead role. And there's even more to the connection between these two productions because Jesus Christ figures to some extent in both of them.

Petty criminal, sex addict, and gambler Randle P McMurphy thinks he's got off lightly when the judge in his latest court trial sends him to a mental institution for observation and evaluation. But when he arrives on the 'acutes’ ward', he soon meets his nemesis in the guise of authoritarian Nurse Ratched (which McMurphy provocatively pronounces as "Rat shit") who rules her ward with a stifling rod of matriarchal iron, using almost every ruthless psychological trick in the book to bully her patients into submission and preserve her unique brand of order and discipline. Rules on this ward are really all that count - the well-being of the patients coming a very poor second on Ratched’s authoritarian agenda. 'What would it be like', says Nurse Ratched, 'if everybody brushed their teeth whenever they took the notion?' Indeed. Well, we might have better standards of oral hygiene for one thing, but that's beside the point.

From their first meeting, it's obvious that McMurphy and Ratched are destined for a head-on collision - a battle of wills is set in motion, but unknown to McMurphy, Nurse Ratched holds all the best cards, with an alarming arsenal of weapons - sedative drugs and ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) for starters - as well as the ultimate 'trump card': frontal lobotomy.

This time round, Slater is harsher, louder and rather less of a friend and more of a protagonist than before - he's lost the softer edge to the performance that was the notable quality from the previous season. And he began a little hesitantly I thought at the start of this performance, but soon got into his stride to produce an attention-grabbing portrayal, though not quite at the same high level as I remember from 2004.

Although Slater is back at the helm, the serenely manipulative nurse Ratched is now played by Alex Kingston rather than Frances Barber. Kingston is evil in a routine rather than dominantly fearful way, and there's no longer quite the same sexual tension that Barber managed to stir up with Slater which previously gave such an emotive and highly charged spark to their bitter struggle of opposing wills. White faced and brightly red-lipped, Kingston's Ratched is still painfully manipulative and dangerous, but just doesn't fire us with quite the same outrage that Barber managed to inflict on us.

Mackenzie Crook's role of the stuttering, mother-dominated Billy Bibbitt is taken over by Paul Ready whose portrayal was rather vague and understated. On the other hand, I still found Brendan Dempsey's Chief Bromden both moving and inspiring, without still really understanding all the mechanical references included in his speeches to his (unseen) 'papa'. From the rest of the cast (many of whom turn out to be comedians) there’s generally good support for Slater and Kingston.

And overall, this is a competent, thoughtful and enjoyable production. My only nagging doubt is just how far the team have tried to re-create the film, because many of the characters in this stage version actually look like the ones from Forman’s film – even down to Billy Bibbitt’s hair style. In some ways, it would have been more adventurous to introduce some new elements into the characterisations, but as I so often end up saying, you can’t have everything.

It's easy to dismiss 'Cuckoo's Nest' as dated or irrelevant - something I also frequently say about revivals. But 'Cuckoos Nest' isn't so much about mental institutions any more (if it ever really was). It's actually more of a political statement about authority and power in society, and on this level it still has something meaningful to say and reactions to provoke. But there is still the important issue about treatment of patients with mental health problems. Even though ECT and frontal lobotomy are now largely discredited, they are still used, which begs the question: why?

If there's one good thing about Terry Johnson and Tamara Harvey's production of 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest', it's that they’re bringing in younger theatre-goers. Usually the average age of a typical West End production is (in my humble opinion) somewhere over 40. On this occasion though, there were far more 20 and 30-somethings, and that can be no bad thing if it whets their appetites and gets them coming back for more. I also hope it makes them hanker after something new and inspiring because crossovers and revivals have come to be the 'safe' norm for West End producers. But 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' is certainly not a bad 'waiting room' until that ‘something new’ turns up.


What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "This revival of the triumphant 2004 London production, which reduced me to damp-eyed emotion, looks a pallid, shrunken reflection of its old glory." ALICE JONES for THE INDEPENDENT says, "[Alex Kingston] endows Ratched with more humanity than perhaps was originally written but as the tables turn in Act Two, power glints in her gimlet eyes and her neck brace lends her a statuesque menace." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Although it is vivaciously done, I just wish the play offered real intellectual challenge instead of theatrical comfort-food." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "[Christian Slater's] McMurphy, still charismatic, but rougher, more obnoxious, pathologically restless and sadly smug. Indeed, the point of his performance is that he underrates institutional power and can’t see how devious and ruthless the system becomes when challenged." JEREMY AUSTIN for THE STAGE says, "A fairly underwhelming play".

External links to full reviews from popular press
The Independent
The Stage
The Guardian
The Times

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