Chickenshed Theatre, London – until 12 May 2018
Here’s an interesting piece of pub quiz trivia: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was both a novel and a play over a decade before it became an Oscar-winning movie. In fact, Dale Wasserman wrote the play just a year after the publication of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel – long before Jack Nicholson and co got involved – and in doing so kept largely faithful to Kesey’s original plot.
In taking on such a culturally significant story, Chickenshed and director Lou Stein have set themselves a daunting challenge. Having said that, this poignant and still relevant story about the way society treats those who don’t fit the mould feels like an appropriate choice for a theatre company that prides itself on making everyone welcome.
In a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, the ward’s well-established and quietly humdrum routine is thrown into chaos by the arrival of Randall McMurphy who’s managed to get himself committed in order to avoid a hard labour sentence for statutory rape. Almost immediately McMurphy clashes with the formidable Nurse Ratched, encouraging the other patients to have some fun and join him in rebelling against her reign of tyranny. At once harrowing and uplifting, you don’t need to have seen the movie (or indeed read the book) to appreciate why this story is hailed as a classic.
As ever at Chickenshed, a diverse cast brings Kesey’s characters to life, with an outstanding performance from leading man Olivier LeClair in particular. He’s got Jack Nicholson’s beanie hat and sly grin but otherwise succeeds in making this iconic role completely his own, in a charismatic and energetic turn that has us on his side from the beginning.
Belinda McGuirk’s Nurse Ratched is introduced more subtly, her seemingly compassionate manner gradually revealed to be a facade as she manipulates and belittles her patients – not to mention the ward doctor – into submission. There are moving performances also from Bradley Davis as Chief Bromden, a Native American patient who’s feigned being deaf and mute for years, and Finn Walters as shy, stuttering Billy Bibbit, who’s spent his whole life feeling like a disappointment, and just wants someone to love him.
The production makes use of every little bit of space in the intimate studio theatre; characters often speak (or sing) from off stage, and the action even expands into the corridor outside at one point. Nor does everything happen at floor level – Robin Don’s set features a slanting roof window that opens skywards, offering the characters a way in… and potentially a way out, if they only have the nerve to take it. The fact that most of the patients are revealed to be on the ward voluntarily speaks volumes about a world where being different is so hard that they’d rather not even try. And while the clinical practices portrayed in the play may no longer be used today, society’s understanding of mental illness is still dangerously insufficient, making One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as relevant now as it was when Ken Kesey first put pen to paper.
In a rather unhappy coincidence, Chickenshed’s production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest opened just a few days after the death of Miloš Forman, who directed the acclaimed 1975 movie adaptation. In the show programme, Lou Stein dedicates the production to Forman – and this unique, courageous and entertaining play makes a fitting tribute.