One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Dale Wasserman from the novel by Ken Kesey

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As critic Anthony Lane once put it in his memorable phrase for the New Yorker: Randle McMurphy displays “a sanity so untrammelled that it had to be locked up”.

In fact the protagonist of Ken Kesey’s novel is a lawbreaking scallywag who fakes psychosis, preferring the option of being the inmate of a funny farm than enduring the drudgery of a state penitentiary.

In this welcome revival of the production, first seen at the Edinburgh Festival and then in the West End eighteen months ago, Christian Slater again gives a starry performance as the charismatic McMurphy, the wayward mental patient whose power struggle against the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (‘Rat-chick’ to him) is finally and tragically crushed by an oppressive medical regime.

There is much fun to be had from watching his portrayal of the rebel leader organising netball games and ‘birds and booze’ sessions for fellow patients; an inveterate gambler setting up card schools while turning 300 bucks in bets; and undermining therapy sessions with his blithe, restless insensitivity to patient protocol.

He even subverts the ward doctor (amusingly played by Simon Chandler, best known as the Home Office nasty in Judge John Deed) while almost turning a pack of losers, voluntary patients and their black guards, into a cohesive force for change, as they pretend to enjoy a baseball game on a ward television turned off as petty punishment for ‘misbehaviour’.

With shorter hair and renewed vigour Slater’s performance is if anything more dynamic than ever, and certainly deserves to fill the Garrick for the next three months. But with a change of casting in the other central role, his McMurphy almost becomes a rebel without a cause.

Where Frances Barber wielded vicious power and authority with a steel-edged sexiness, Alex Kingston’s Nurse Ratched is a blonde pussycat, fresh-faced and pretty like a L’Oréal celebrity in starched white uniform and pink lipstick, the sort of nurse male patients fall for — if only she could crack a smile between her more assertive moments.

Not disastrous miscasting, this is a composed, attractive performance. But she delivers much of her dialogue in conversational tones instead of winging it to the audience, asserting her will by shouting orders when not getting her own way. And while she remains mistress of cruel punishments, ranging from straitjacket restraint all the way through to shock treatment and lobotomy, these are plot devices — perhaps Kesey’s propaganda against medical orthodoxy, rather than dramatic character traits.

The boys in the ward are mostly played by stand-up comics, brilliantly led by Owen O’Neill as the redheaded Dale, and by cast newcomer Paul Ready who plays the mother’s boy Billy in the style of a tongue-tied Hugh Grant, but whose craven submission to bullying, after a session with Lizzie Roper’s sumptuous hooker, sets the seal on McMurphy’s fate.

Repeating his towering role as the native American big Chief Brandon, Brendan Dempsey gives a compelling portrayal of an elemental force like a Marvel Comics hero with a voice as deep as the Grand Canyon, coupled with a stage charisma that provides another strong reason for catching Tamara Harvey’s atmospheric staging — co-directed with Terry Johnson.

Critical tribute is also due to Katy Tuxford for a cleverly clinical set design, full of technical surprises, and a dazzling lighting plot by Chris Davey that almost becomes a contributory character in itself.

This Nimax Theatre production, first reviewed by Philip Fisher at the Gielgud Theatre in September 2004, is booking until 3rd June, 2006.

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Reviewer: John Thaxter

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