One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, understudy show

Note: This review is from 2005

Review by Steve Bennett

Christian Slater’s a tough act to follow. But throughout the West End run of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, comic Phil Nichol has stood by, waiting to take the role of renegade mental patient Randle P McMurphy should the Hollywood star ever be laid up.

But even though a bout of chicken pox he contracted delayed the opening night at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Slater has proved a robust creature. Which is why an extra matinee was arranged yesterday, to let the understudies flex their acting muscles at last.

It’s true that Nichol’s no Christian Slater, or maybe he’s just chosen not to try to follow such impressive footsteps. When his McMurphy swaggers onto the ward, it’s without much of Slater’s charisma. There’s no instant excitement that here is a genuine, explosive, live-life-to-the-full livewire about to turn the clinically arid world of the institution upside-down. Instead, Nichol’s McMurphy is a more regular guy, extrovert certainly, but not the force of nature that Slater (or Jack Nicholson in the film, for that matter) immediately evokes.

But as the play progresses Nichol grows into this peach of a role, making it his own. The moments of dark humour are more playful, and all the better for it, as he encourages his fellow inmates to play basketball or any number of other such unapproved activities simply to wind up the frigidly controlling Nurse Ratched.

His defining moment comes when, fresh from the shower, he drops his towel in front of this sexually repressed queen bee, revealing an elaborate pair off frilly, pink-checked knickers which he duly parades around the stage with a ridiculous theatrical prance – showing off his very well-maintained beer gut. Now that’s something Christian Slater can’t do.

The buttoned-down Nurse Ratched is, in many ways, a more difficult role, since any feeling must be repressed behind such a cold, emotionless facade. She may be sadistically cruel and desperately frustrated, but it can only be nuanced behind a soothingly hypnotic monotone. In such a deadpan role comic actress Katherine Jakeways, right, standing in for Frances Barber, is partly successful. She holds the stage and puts in a more-than creditable performance, perfectly capturing Ratchet’s Southern drawl and unbending domineering nature that make her more than capable of facing up to McMurphy. But the undefinable sinister air and flicks of sexual tension do not quite peek through the veneer.

It means some of the tense central exchanges between Ratched and McMurphy are missing some of the emotional intensity the original cast provided, turning the play into a straightforward struggle of fun-loving good versus petty evil rather than involving more complex personality clashes.

Of the supporting cast, Jerome Blake makes a convincing Chief – the ‘deaf-mute’ patient who inspires McMurphy’s fatal rebellion and is in turn inspired by it – bringing the necessary quiet presence to the stage, even if he doesn’t physically tower above it quite as much as regular player Brendan Dempsey. And Guy Lewis, as the stuttering, insecure and immature Billy Bibbit, may suffer in comparison to Mackenzie Crook, but again turns in a credible, touching performance. More kudos must go to Irish comic Owen O’Neill, for his brilliant lynchpin performance as the shy, intellectual Dale Harding he regularly plays, a man always hoping for better, but too timid to do anything about it.

As events unfold towards their inevitable, tragic conclusion, all the understudies raise their game. Given that he’s a comic, you might have expected Nichol to mine the humourous scenes for laughs – but he also brings a more surprising maturity to both the final, deadly serious showdown with Ratched, when he is torn between duty to his new-found comrades or saving his own skin, and the literally shocking scenes that follow.

The play simply does not end in the same drainingly emotional climax of the film; not even Slater and Barber could make it otherwise, so it’s no surprised that it’s no different here. But as a whole, this powerful, cynical take on the world of mental health in particular, but ‘civilised’ society in general still packs a meaningful punch.

One key aim of this one-off performance was surely to prove that Phil Nichol and Katherine Jakeways proved are not out of their depth on the West End stage. On that front alone. job done. But there was also a benefit for the rest of the cast too - as outside the shadow of the big-name star, they proved how their fine performances have contributed to the success of a show that’s always been so much more than a straightforward vehicle for Christian Slater. Steve Bennett
January 12, 2005

Review date: 1 Jan 2005
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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