One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Note: This review is from 2004

Review by Steve Bennett

It was a difficult birth, thanks to the director quitting and the curse of the pox, but the biggest show on the Fringe did, finally, open. And what an impressive treat One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest proves to be.

Christian Slater was the one making the headlines, of course, as the Hollywood star parachuted in to boost the box office, if not here but at the ensuing West End run. And whatever the off-stage drama, he makes for a spirited, compelling Randle P McMurphy, the hollerin', yahooin' rebel who tries to shake up the arid, soulless atmosphere of the lunatic asylum he is committed to.

Slater has so often been compared to Jack Nicholson that it's a bold move to step into his straitjacket so deliberately. But his McMurphy is no carbon copy of Nicholson's brilliant film portrayal, even if the same spirit and energy is there.

What comes as even more of a surprise is that for all Slater's fame, and the extravagant, showmanlike nature of his role, he doesn't steal the show. This is a genuine team game and each of the ensemble cast, most of whom are comics, rises to the challenge their diverse roles bring.

Mackenzie Crook, no small name himself, excels as the shy, stammering Billy Bibbitt, bringing out his social and sexual repression with sparse emotion but detailed performance.

Of the other inmates, all deserve praise for their flawless work, but there are too many to mention. Phil Nichol, for one, is almost unrecognisable as the painfully shy buttoned-down simpleton while Ian Coppinger brings an impish cheek to Martini, the hallucinator in a flying helmet.

Brendan Dempsey perfectly captures the crushed pride of Chief Bromden, while Owen O'Neill's Harding seems the most outwardly sane inante, but he too brings a subtlety to the role, especially when Nurse Ratched's sadistic, prying questioning leaves him a broken man.

Ratched runs the ward with a rod of iron, the ultimate authority figure unbending in her adhesion to the rules and ruthless in her determination to cling to her status Frances Barber depicts Ratched as emotionally void, callously manipulating the lives of her patients simply because she can, even though it seems to bring her no pleasure.

The irony is that the patients are complicit in their own oppression. "It's for your own good" is the mantra, and they all believe it.

Although Dale Wasserman's script, and Ken Kesey's original novel, is clearly an attack on the dehumanising way mental patients are treated, the asylum as a metaphor for wider society is impossible to miss.

RP McMurphy is the free spirit, kicking out against tyranny despite the apathy of his fellow citizens. He is an irresistible force who tries to shift an immovable object, an analogy that's made literal. And even though he failed, the achievement's in the trying.

Inexorably, he and Ratched move towards a showdown. And it's when they do finally square up that the slightest of cracks start to show up in the otherwise compelling production.

When Ratched erupts with falsely indignant fury to goad McMurphy into desperate retaliation, the natural realism seems to evaporate. Barber is too obviously giving a shouty performance rather that drawing on the spite in her character's black heart

Similarly the tragic final moments of the two-hour piece fail to reach the emotional intensity they should after such a rollercoaster ride: the inevitability of McMurphy's fate seeming just another episode in asylum life, rather than the tearful climax it should have been.

But this slight disappointment in the dying minutes does not detract from the brilliance of the work in bringing such weighty but entertaining piece to vivid life. Its Assembly Rooms run sold out on anticipation, but it will continue to thrive beyond the Fringe because it delivers on that promise.

Review date: 1 Jan 2004
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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