As classics of their type – particularly Nicholson’s Oscar-winning turn as the insanity-faking petty criminal Randle P McMurphy – they serve as interesting period pieces. But do they stand the test of time?
In Michael Buffong’s straightforward, down-the-line production for Curve, the play seems uncomplicated, rather dated and a little preachy. The distinctions between the docile, sparkless inmates of the psychiatric ward and the disciplinarian, clinical coldness of the staff are drawn in stark black and white, offering an un-nuanced metaphor for American society and its treatment of outsiders and rebels.
The harshness of the polarisation is reflected in the performances, too, with Michael Beckley’s brash and swaggering McMurphy played from the outset as a direct personal challenge to Catherine Russell’s icy Nurse Ratched. Elsewhere, some extraordinary supporting work among the inmates provides grim fascination for the viewer but little in the way of enlightenment or colour.
Thomas Renshaw is a powerful exception, investing his Red Indian Chief Bromden with gravitas and pathos and grounding the piece firmly with his strong-but-silent enormity and authority.
An impressive set by Ellen Cairns and some judicious lighting and sound (Mark Howland and Jack C Arnold respectively) help considerably with mood and tone, and the second act takes off emotionally in a way the first never quite manages. But the raw impact it must have had in 1963, when Kirk Douglas first played McMurphy off Broadway, has somehow been diluted across the years, leaving a solid if unremarkable production.