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Slater rules the nest in revival of a classic

Review by Jack Foley

WHEN he first emerged as one of the young guns of Hollywood, many people referred to Christian Slater as 'a young Jack Nicholson' - so it is, perhaps, appropriate that he should finally be stepping into a role made famous by Nicholson for his West End debut.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, at the Gielgud Theatre, is based on Ken Kesey’s cult 1960s novel and first made its appearance on Broadway, when Kirk Douglas took on the legendary role of RP McMurphy.

But was the film version, starring Nicholson and directed by Milos Forman, that really made the story the classic it has become.

And it is a credit to Slater that he rises the challenge, inhabiting the role with all the cocksure swagger that comes with his Hollywood persona, while also being humble enough to realise that this is an ensemble piece to boot.

Sure, the spirit of Nicholson hangs over most of the key scenes (the World Series monologue and the final confrontation, especially), but Slater maintains great presence and never appears to be struggling in any way.

The same cannot be said for The Office star, Mackenzie Crook, however, whose depiction of the stuttering, mother's boy, Billy Bibbitt, occasionally feels a little too forced - unlike the performance of Brad Dourif in the movie.

Perhaps it's because he isn't really afforded enough time to make an impression, and is forced to exist in the sidelines for much of the action, but Crook fails to convey the tragedy of Bibbitt's story arc, or the emotional impact of his final betrayal.

It is the only real reservation I had about the evening and one which shouldn't detract from an otherwise enthralling two and a half hours in the theatre.

For those who don't know, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is set in a mental asylum, during the Sixties, which is governed by Nurse Ratched (Frances Barber) under a strict set of rules.

When petty criminal, RP McMurphy, arrives, however, and begins to wage a personal war against those in charge, the lives of his fellow patients get shaken up in the boldest way possible.

Rather than being governed by intimidation, the group - including Brendan Dempsey's Chief Bromden, Owen O'Neill's Harding, and Phil Nichol's Cheswick - are inspired to question their treatments and to make a better life for themselves in the institution.

For McMurphy, however, his battle of wits with the formidable 'Nurse Rat-shit' (as he comes to taunt her), comes at increasingly greater personal cost.

Yet, ironically, his burgeoning friendship with Dempsey's catatonic Chief might yet provide his salvation...

Kesey's tale, as directed by Terry Johnson and Tamara Harvey, is a tragic, yet ultimately liberating piece of work, that deftly combines its black humour with an understated line in heroism.

And thanks to Slater's masterful, charismatic turn in the central role, it remains as memorable in theatrical form, as it did on film, especially during its second act, when the feud between McMurphy and Ratched comes to a head.

It is during these moments that Barber brilliantly realises the full extent of her wickedness, expertly earning the boos of her audience during the encore.

And when Slater succeeds in making the role completely his own - when the bare-faced cheek of his earlier scenes is cruelly exposed as the start of his downfall.

Audiences can't fail to be moved by the show's devastating finale, which is made all the more poignant by the quality of its performers.

I would urge you to catch it during its limited run.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, presented by Nica Burns for Theatershare Plc., Max Weitzenhoffer and Ian Lenagan.
Playwright: Dale Wasserman; Based on the novel by: Ken Kesey; Directed by Terry Johnson, Tamara Harvey; Set design by Katy Tuxford; Lighting design by Chris Davey; Costume design by Dagmar Morell; Composer/sound design by Matt Clifford.
WITH: Christian Slater (Randle Patrick McMurphy); Frances Barber (Nurse Ratched); Mackenzie Crook (Billy Bibbitt); Brendan Dempsey (Chief Bromden); Stephen K Amos (Aide Warren); Felix Dexter (Aide Williams); Lucy Porter (Nurse Flinn); Owen O'Neill (Dale Harding); Phil Nichol (Charles Allen Cheswick III); Gavin Robertson (Frank Scanlon); Ian Coppinger (Anthony Martini); Dave Johns (Ruckly); Tim Ahern (Dr Spivey); Lizzie Roper (Candy); Katherine Jakeways (Sandy).
Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, W1
Nearest Tube: Piccadilly
Until December 4




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