Last summer, director Guy Masterson had the genius idea of staging Twelve Angry Men on the Edinburgh Fringe with a cast drawn almost entirely from comedians who would already be performing up there. Financial astuteness meshed with comparative box-office clout and a remarkably solid production to bring both critical and commercial success. This year came the follow-up, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, starring many of the same comics and also a clutch of big names: Mackenzie Crook, Frances Barber and most of all Christian Slater. A West End transfer was guaranteed.
Then things began to go the way of the pear. A supporting actor was refused a work permit; Masterson left over artistic disagreements; Slater caught chicken-pox and the opening had to be postponed; on the long-delayed press performance, a technical glitch marred the finale. Yet despite the whole grim saga, what was unveiled in August was an admirable piece of work.
As it opens (on schedule) in the West End, it's clear that the intervening month has only improved it. Those initial nerves now dispelled, everyone has settled into the production. It's most noticeable in Slater's central performance... or perhaps we simply look most closely at him. He was always going to come under minute scrutiny, Hollywood's "son of Jack Nicholson" taking to the stage in one of Jack's greatest screen roles, as RP McMurphy, the petty crook, hustler and mischief-maker who is admitted to a mental ward and turns it upside down.
When I first saw the show, I thought Slater was discreetly but palpably making an effort not to "do" Nicholson. The effort has now gone, replaced by confidence. Slater plays it how he plays it, and if the physical resemblance is there, so be it, but in this show, it's his part and nobody else's. He relishes the gum-chewing puckishness as McMurphy battles the smiling tyranny of Nurse Ratched, but he also brings psychological and emotional depth to the role: at crucial moments you can see the workings of McMurphy's mind without Slater saying a word.
As his nemesis Nurse Ratched (or, as McMurphy insists on pronouncing it, "Rat-shit"), Frances Barber takes more of a psychological journey than I had at first noticed. It's true that by the interval she has entirely dispensed with the thin, Thatcher-like I'm-the-one-in-control smiles and simply become a white-starched witch engaged in a battle of wills. But at the very end, Barber reveals a kind of principled courage at the character's core: she first delivers an impassioned, sincere speech revealing that she truly believes all her manipulations are in her patients' best interests, then she stands in direct physical challenge to McMurphy – a straightforward showdown.
In some ways Crook out-acts both as Billy Bibbitt, the stuttering, waif-like inmate who becomes the emblem of McMurphy and Ratched's battle. Owen O'Neill, too, deserves mention as Harding, the prissy ward "president". But this isn't a production where laurels go to a single performer. Directors Terry Johnson and Tamara Harvey elicit excellent ensemble performances from the cast of fifteen, with not even Slater treating it as a star vehicle.
Its central metaphor is arguably more salient now than in 1963 when Dale Wasserman adapted Ken Kesey's novel: we're even more medicated and repressively-tolerated by smiling authorities than 40 years ago. In other ways, the radical message has soured, so that none of the main characters now emerges with a monopoly on our sympathies. What does emerge is a production that has beaten its demons and, like the imposing inmate Chief Bromden, now stands tall.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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