One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Dale Wasserman, adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Production phot by Robert Day

On more than one occasion I've sung the praises of theatre in the Midlands, opining that many productions are good enough to transfer to the West End. In some cases shows that start life in the Midlands have sorted out a London transfer even before their run at the initial venue is complete.

I didn't for one moment think I'd be mentioning One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest as being worth greater exposure. That was solely because there's a version playing already at the Garrick in the West End, with notable actors such as Christian Slater and Alex Kingston in the lead roles.

I haven't seen the version at the Garrick but the New Vic's offering deserves acclaim for one major reason: it's a stunning production which has been achieved presumably on a much smaller budget.

Director Chris Monks has assembled a clever cast who produce consistently good performances which lead to an evening of humour, tension, pathos and sadness.

No matter how good the cast might be, any performance of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest falls down if the actor playing Randle P McMurphy isn't up to the job. Fortunately RSC veteran John Killoran is superlative as the con man who goes into an asylum to escape a prison work farm.

Killoran, dressed in leather jacket and cap and turned-up jeans, is eccentric, exuberant and aggressive. He's a total contrast to the rest of the inmates who are all crazy in their individual way. You feel for him when he's given electric shock treatment to curb his outlandish behaviour and you understand his psyche when he tells some of the inmates, "You gotta laugh - especially when things aren't funny."

Janice McKenzie as Nurse Ratched doesn't rely on the sexiness which other actors have reportedly brought to the part. Having a mature nurse makes her credible, especially when it's revealed that she's a workaholic who spends most of her time in the asylum. McKenzie is matronly, detached, steely and always in control of her temper; you dislike her intensely because you don't agree with her methods.

The characters of the patients are well-defined and widely different from one another. All the actors produce astonishing performances. Particularly impressive are Joseph Raishbrook as Billy Bibbit, whose stammer and accompanying mannerisms are exceptional; Chris Garner as the erstwhile leader Dale Harding who appears to be sane only to break down when Nurse Ratched puts her foot down; and Richard Ashton who gives a literally towering performance as Chief Bromden.

Designing plays for the in-the-round New Vic can be a problem but Ellen Cairns has skilfully turned the auditorium into a psychiatric hospital. The floor consists of black, white and grey squares; tables and chairs are uninvitingly functional; the nurses' area is so austere you can almost smell the medication; and there's an intimidating prison-style gate over one of the entrances to keep everyone, audience included, inside.

The accents are authentic American, thanks to voice coach Mark Langley who has done an excellent job with the whole cast.

Unable to visit London to see Christian Slater in Cuckoo's Nest? Get along to the New Vic instead where you'll see a riveting production. Top-price tickets are a steal at only £16. You'd be mad not to see it.

"One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" runs at the New Vic until 20th May

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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