Terry Johnson & Tamara Harvey
Christian Slater’s star turn as RP McMurphy in the stage version of Ken Kesey’s cult novel was one of the West End successes of 2004. Now, a year after Terry Johnson’s production finished its run at the Gielgud, it’s back, this time at the Garrick theatre and with a new cast, but with Slater once again taking the lead.
Adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman, Cuckoo’s Nest is set in a US state mental hospital in the 1960s. Randall Patrick McMurphy, a petty criminal (just too fond, as he puts it of “fighting and fucking”) figures a spell in an institution is his ticket to an easy life, a desirable alternative to another stretch in regular gaol. But though his lack of respect for the hospital’s rules and policies, his penchant for gambling and general trouble-making, wins him friends among the inmates it soon leads to clashes with the ward’s domineering Nurse Ratched (played by ER’s Alex Kingston, taking over from Frances Barber).
As before the supporting cast is composed mainly of comedians. It’s a strategy that pays off; the strong ensemble playing really elevates this production. Amongst a strong cast Owen O’Neill stands out as the sensitive, hen-pecked Harding and Paul Ready is also endearing as the stammering Billy Bibbett.
As the cold-eyed Big Nurse, Alex Kingston certainly looks the part. With her regal posture and those considerable curls tucked under her nurse’s cap, she’s a suitably imposing figure. Manipulative and cunning, Nurse Ratched is a woman who doesn’t like to lose, that is clear, but she’s not a monster. Kingston always gives the sense that she believes her actions are in her patients’ best interests. It’s difficult to believe however that such a rigid, upright character would sport such crimson lips and nails.
When the Steppenwolf theatre company did Cuckoo’s Nest at the Barbican several years ago, Gary Sinise played McMurphy – it was a fantastic performance, swaggering and stocky, very much in the spirit of Kesey’s novel. I was concerned that Slater would simply turn in a version of the Jack Nicholson impersonation he was often accused of relying on in the early days of his film career, but he was surprisingly subtle in the role. He’s adept at McMurphy’s wild, attention grabbing antics, but he also invests his performance with an unexpected degree of fragility and desperation.
Though well-acted, this is far from a flawless production. With its sinister Combine and malevolent Big Nurse, Kesey’s novel was very much a product of its time. And while this story of a rebel who bucks the system clearly continues to have an appeal, on the stage the narrative feels pretty heavy-handed.
Wasserman’s adaptation resurrects the voiceover of Native American Chief Bromden (played by Brendan Dempsey) which was jettisoned in Milos Foreman’s 1975 film. So fundamental to the novel, these interludes are clumsily rendered on stage; crudely nightmareish, all thunderclaps, flashing lights and some inexcusably corny nursery rhyme chanting. The results are unintentionally amusing rather than atmospheric.
Equally jarring is the sexual dynamic suddenly introduced between McMurphy and Ratched during their climactic confrontation. The element of sexual violence in his attack on her and, in turn, her oddly tender response to him afterwards, seems to have come from nowhere. Apparently the chemistry between Frances Barber’s Ratched and Slater’s McMurphy was more defined, but I missed this show in its first incarnation so I can’t compare.
Still, in many other aspects, this a very strong piece of theatre. The current production, for all its broadness, is still highly entertaining and accessible, and an excellent example of how well big name casting can work when done with care.