When Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s mental asylum novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was last brought to the British stage two-and-a-half years ago, it seemed that lunatics weren’t so much running the asylum as threatening to take the show’s producer Nica Burns down with them: everything that could go wrong did, from the early departure of the original director to its star, Christian Slater, coming down with the chickenpox just days before its Edinburgh Fringe try-out.
But Slater recovered and the show went on to become that rare thing, a substantial and popular West End success that was particularly adept at attracting a younger generation of theatregoers through the doors. Now, wearing her new hat as West End theatre owner with Max Weitzenhoffer, Burns has brought it back to town to the Garrick, one of the four theatres in the Nimax stable, and even if it might seem a little soon to be seeing it again, it deserves to have a further life now for those who didn't get a chance to see it in the first place.
Away from the initial brouhaha that surrounded it – some of us were genuinely surprised that such a triumph had been plucked from its adversity – it’s possible to see the play's human and theatrical virtues more clearly. Slater, too, has grown considerably in the kind of cocky confidence as Randle Patrick McMurphy that is in fact his undoing. As a new inmate who goads, taunts and constantly throws down the gauntlet of challenging the authority of the tyrannical Nurse Ratched, it’s all too clear that she’s going to play her cards even as she invokes endless petty rules to prevent him from playing with his.
Slater is also now finely matched by Alex Kingston’s Ratched, more truthful, restrained, and therefore more scary than Frances Barber’s high-camp turn before. This Ratched is as starched and pinched as the impeccable white uniforms that are brilliantly offset by the bright red lipstick and nail varnish she also wears. Kingston, a former RSC rising star who long ago left for the US where she made her name as Dr Elizabeth Corday in television’s ER, makes an impressive return to the London stage in appropriately medical mode.
Hollywood’s Christian Slater may have star billing as RP McMurphy, the petty criminal who likes “to fight and fuck” and was immortalised on screen by Jack Nicholson, but he clearly recognises that Dale Wasserman’s play, based on Ken Kesey’s cult 1960s novel about rebellion on a strict mental ward, is an ensemble piece.
Despite his status, Slater demonstrates incredible on-stage generosity towards his comic co-stars – Ian Coppinger as the diminutive but big-hearted delusional Martini, Phil Nicol and Gavin Robertson as the twitchy Cheswick and Scanlon, and Owen O'Neill as prim aesthete Harding - who, in turn, inspire the best aspects of his performance. Competitive camaraderie, mischievous glee, real strength in numbers.
Less successful is Frances Barber as Nurse Ratched who, rather than ever suggesting masked vulnerability, simply increases the volume in her transformation from cold manipulator to screeching harridan. Still less effective is the role of Chief Bromden, now played by Brendan Dempsey, who has the bulk but lacks a true sense of ancestral wisdom. He should provide a moral and narrative driving force; instead his internal musings create disruption rather than cohesion.
Those most familiar with Cuckoo's Nest from Milos Forman’s 1975 Oscar-winning film will also be perplexed by some small but significant changes to the story. In particular, the final scenes here are more muddled, both in terms of motivation and emotional punch, particularly where Mackenzie Crook’s stuttering Billy Bibbitt is concerned.
It’s a disappointment that, despite enjoyable compensations from the crack ensemble, co-directors Terry Johnson and Tamara Harvey seem unable to resolve.
- Terri Paddock
NOTE: The following review dates from August 2004 and this production’s original run at the Edinburgh Fringe.
The result was worth waiting for, too. It hums along at a decent pace and, while it might not be the definitive One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, nor is it the worst. All the drama around the build up to the play is certainly not nearly as much, nor as dramatic, as the energy and drama which is generated on the stage.
Slater sets about creating the role of RP McMurphy with his own gutsy bravura and, in doing so, he succeeds in stepping well out of the shadow cast by Jack Nicholson's creation of the role for the cinema. You never believe that Slater’s McMurphy is actually mad; he’s only a simple criminal who thinks he’s onto a cushy number by getting sent for assessment in Nurse Ratched's ward in a mental hospital. It’s enticing stuff.
As McMurphy's nemesis Nurse Ratched, Frances Barber also succeeds in stepping out from the film’s shadow. She does not, however, have much success in her creation of the role itself. Ratched calls for a certain amount of stiff formality, of course, but Barber is all stiffness. There’s never any inkling that underneath it all, she might be hiding unbridled passion. Nor, indeed, is there ever any hint that McMurphy or the inmates of her ward regard her as a figure of desire.
What Slater does - and what Barber fails to do - is to show generosity towards the other actors in the company. If any revival of Cuckoo's Nest is to work, McMurphy and Ratched must vie for the hearts and minds of the other patients on the ward. Rather than hog the limelight, Slater allows Harding (Owen O'Neill), Cheswick (Phil Nichol) and Martini (Ian Coppinger) to enjoy the stage while their characters grow too, thanks to McMurphy's tutelage into the ways of women and gambling.
It is Mackenzie Crook's stuttering and sexually repressed Billy Bibbitt who has to fight hardest to overcome the bravado. Crook works hard to bring a sense of doom and pathos to Bibbitt. But it’s with this character that the whole production really shows its lack of coherence.
Bibbitt should provide the real tragedy of the play but, on this occasion, the decision to delay the moment of poignancy for McMurphy’s sake serves only to dissipate much of its power. The result is a potentially great production made merely good.
- Thom Dibdin
Reviewed at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms during the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe festival, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest transfers to the West End’s Gielgud Theatre from 3 September 2004 (See News, 12 Aug 2004).