So they lost their director, for reasons which nobody will talk about on the record; had a supporting actor refused a work permit, and a lead who went down with not one but two illnesses, resulting in cancellations of sold-out performances and a week's delay; and then, on the performance when the press finally get to see the show, apparently a technical problem blights the finale. Not that we noticed, having already had our expectations lowered that this Edinburgh venue doesn't have the same technical facilities that will make the climax so much more climactic when the show hits the West End immediately after its Fringe run.
So, has it been worth the wait? Well, as long as your breath wasn't too bated. The follow-up to Guy Masterson's acclaimed revival last year of Twelve Angry Men, which used an all-star cast drawn almost entirely from comedians playing the Fringe, is in the same solid vein but with a few bigger names on top. To take the biggest first: Christian Slater does not do Jack Nicholson. OK, as he plays RP McMurphy, the petty criminal trying to shake up Big Nurse's cotton-wool tyranny in a mental institution, it's hard not to see Jack in many of Slater's smirks; but this is a production of Dale Wasserman's 1963 stage adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel, not a re-creation of Milos Forman's 1975 movie. Similarly, Frances Barber is not as comprehensively repressed a Nurse Ratched as Louise Fletcher in the film; in fact, after 30-40 minutes of brittle smiles, Barber generally lets the pretend-tolerance slide and goes all-out for white-starched witch.
The other members of the ward work well as an ensemble, with Mackenzie Crook genuinely affecting as stuttering Billy Bibbitt, and Brendan Dempsey briefly hitting the same heights in his first nocturnal duologue with McMurphy. Owen O'Neill, who had been Masterson's lead last year, is once again an effective linchpin as Harding, the nearest thing the ward has to a voice of reason. Lucy Porter proves shockingly good at self-effacement here as timid Nurse Flinn... a minor role, but a stark contrast with her own comedy show in which she proves congenitally (and endearingly) unable to stop herself from chatting to all and sundry.
It's a solid production; nothing goes conspicuously wrong (tech fault notwithstanding), no backer's money is likely to be in danger, and no-one will leave the theatre disappointed. There's just a faint thought that perhaps it could have been even better, could have possessed positive virtues as opposed to a simple absence of faults.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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