Gielgud Theatre, London WC2
Opened 16 October, 2004

It's not often you hear a West End producer saying, "We didn't really want press coverage," and even rarer for it to be remotely plausible. In this case, though, you see the point. It's not a matter of quality, but spirit. When One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest played the Edinburgh Fringe, nine (by my count) of the comedians in its cast also had shows of their own. In London, though, it's a different matter. Hence these late-night shows on alternate Saturdays, where the cast get to let off steam after two weeks in a fictitious mental hospital. It's odd seeing them do comedy against that set: as Dave Johns remarked, "It's like doing a gig in a Bond villain's lair."

Most of the first night's fare was wham-bam comedy-club stuff: Johns (who in the main show plays a patient imaginarily nailed to the wall), Stephen K. Amos (a ward orderly), Lucy Porter (whose perky chatter is a world away from her mouse-like nurse) and Brendan Dempsey (the towering Chief Bromden) strode on, delivered sets of ten minutes or less, then dashed off the opposite side.

This part of the evening had two stars, and one of them simply announced the others. But what the hell, it was still Christian Slater. By all accounts, Slater is keen to avoid any prima-donna-ishness amid the company. That seemed apparent also from his MC-ing stint, which he kicked off by lampooning his own reputation. Announcing the only impersonation he can do, he simply donned a pair of sunglasses, grinned his best son-of-Jack Nicholson grin and announced, "Heeere's me!" The finest performance came from Mackenzie Crook, nigh-unrecognisable in pudding-basin wig, bad 1970s shades and a nylon tracksuit. I first saw his creation Mr Bagshaw, a PE teacher who really shouldn't be let near a proper classroom, several years ago, and he hasn't paled yet.

The final half-hour, though, was rather a different matter. Again, with that big a cast, and also a couple of actors (Slater and Frances Barber) who lack a comic shtick of their own, it's natural to think of impro-comedy games. This segment though, showed that it's not an easy option. It was clear which performers (Phil Nichol, Dempsey and his occasional partner tiny Ian Coppinger) could improvise well, and which were either out of their depth or totally at sea.

However, it's only in a review like this that such things matter. It would be fatal to build up expectations of high-gloss razzmatazz; go along expecting no more than a bit of fun, and you'll be more than satisfied.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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