Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Dale Wasserman
Gielgud Theatre
(2004)

Frances Barber

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was the big sensation in Edinburgh this year, selling out every performance. Now, the "House Full" signs are up outside the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue and could well remain there for some time to come.

This might be more to do with the attractions of Hollywood star Christian Slater and Mackenzie Crook who has made his name in The Office, not to mention half a dozen stand-up comedians, than Terry Johnson's production itself.

If that is the case, it is most unfair, since the latest adaptation of Dale Wasserman's play is most entertaining and features an outstanding performance by Frances Barber as Nurse Ratched, well supported by Slater.

The crux of the story is the battle between Randle P McMurphy, played unforgettably in the film by Jack Nicholson, and the nurse who might easily have been christened Big Sister both for her extra-sensory perception and chilling cruelty.

Slater does a good job as the new inmate in a mental institution who may be there out of laziness or possibly just because society is jealous of his lifestyle. His performance in London is somehow more natural and wittier than in Edinburgh although this may not be such a surprise, since he was still recovering from chicken pox at the Assembly Rooms' press performance.

The play, like Ken Kesey's early 1960s novel and the film version, is an allegory about an authoritarian society, represented by Nurse Ratched, and the anarchic rebellions that were to come to the fore in 1968. Sadly, there was never likely to be much doubt as to who would win. The sweetly smiling Nurse may sound like Marilyn Monroe but the iron fist beneath could as easily have belonged to Britain's own Iron Lady of the 1980s.

The surprise, to the audience as much to McMurphy, is that all of the other inmates, led by Owen O'Neill's Harding really do seem to accept, if not actually love, Big Sister and are in the institution voluntarily. What this means is that they can walk out when they like, while the committed man will inevitably have his sentence extended if he doesn't toe the line.

Kesey combines rumbustious humour with real pathos. It is McMurphy, not the medicos, who is able to persuade the excellent Brendan Dempsey's chief to return to society. He is also the man who allows the remaining inmates, not always terribly convincingly played, that real-life is something to enjoy, not fear.

The ending is a shock and says much about a supposedly civilised society. The fact that, on no more than a nurse's whim, a patient could be subjected to electro-shock therapy; and, for organising a party, lobotomised, is too terrifying to contemplate.

Miss Barber wowed not only the audience but the press contingent in Edinburgh and there is little doubt that she will have the same effect in London. Her performance is electrifying and the only problem is that she outshines and steals scenes from the stars that the audience have come to see.

Terry Johnson's production, originally conceived by Guy Masterson, could run and run. Initially, its sales will be based on the names of some of its cast members bu,t in due course, the word will get out that this is a play they can be enjoyed on several levels. As a comedy with deeper undertones it will please many, as a kind of updated version of 1984, it could provide an intellectual challenge too.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version

John Thaxter reviewed the 2006 revival at the Garrick

Reviewer: Philip Fisher