The rise of the half-baked

One flew over the cuckoo's nest | Barbican Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

America in the Sixties, the programme for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest says, was the time of Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, of demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. It might have been more useful, however, to remind us of the period's other mental-illness entertainments.

America in the Sixties, the programme for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest says, was the time of Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, of demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. It might have been more useful, however, to remind us of the period's other mental-illness entertainments.

In 1962, the year Ken Kesey's novel appeared, one of the biggest hits was David and Lisa, a film about two young mental patients, both beautiful enough to be models, whom a heartless society denies the right to love. The year before, in Splendour in the Grass, Natalie Wood ended up in the bin because her parents wouldn't let her sleep with Warren Beatty. In the immensely popular King of Hearts (1966), Alan Bates led a flock of inmates who escape from a hospital and show they are sweeter, gentler, and sexually better adjusted than so-called normal folk.

This sentimental, not to say self-congratulatory, view of insanity still has its adherents, to judge by the opening night of Steppenwolf's production of Dale Wasserman's 1970 play. From the first scene, as the patients made wisecracks and acted weird, the audience responded to Terry Kinney's sit-com pacing and emphasis with laughs and cheers.

The men engaged so amiably in a card game are a group of Felixes and Oscars, except for one, who insists on dealing to an imaginary player. That excellent actor Ross Lehman could be one of those droll professor types played innumerable times by Henry Morgan.

Into this companionable group stalks Nurse Ratched, whom one patient says reverently is "like a mother". But mothers, it seems, have caused all the trouble by belittling the men and their fathers and jealously guarding their sons from that horrid thing that Freud called sex ( Cuckoo elevates the adolescent folk remedy for pimples into a cure for psychosis).

Enter their saviour, Randle P McMurphy (Gary Sinise, convincingly louche and charismatic but over-busy). Nurse Ratched may shriek, "You're not God!" but McMurphy, who jauntily asks for a crown of thorns before undergoing electro-shock therapy, indeed dies so that his spirit may set the others free.

Randle, who has been shamming psychosis so as not to go to prison for statutory rape preaches a familiar gospel: the real man is the little boy. When the other inmates learn to ignore and defy women, out into the world they go, full of self-expression and self-esteem, those creeds that have done so much for state education and public civility.

Wasserman's play - like the Milos Forman film, more realistic than Kesey's novel - relies on quite a few nutty premises. Not only can severe personality disorders be shucked off with a few pep talks, but women are the source of all power, which they withhold from men. Nurse Ratched blatantly revenges herself on McMurphy by having him lobotomised, but there is no suggestion that the hospital's head, or its doctors, are women. Neither in the realities of the ward, nor the world it symbolises, does Cuckoo fly too close to reality.

Sponsorship note: this production was paid for by Sara Lee, the American manufacturer of baked goods. (When Wasserman wrote that even more idealistic musical, Man of La Mancha, his partner was the author of a wildly successful jingle for the company.)

Can you really imagine the corporation shelling out for a show that wasn't a feel-good cupcake?

To 5 Aug, 020-7638 8891

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