Alex Kingston's first acting job was playing a bully in Grange Hill. So she has good pedigree as she becomes Nurse Ratched, the starched, unflinching and controlling matron of a mental institution who locks horns with her anarchic new patient Randle P McMurphy (Christian Slater).
For the revival of Terry Johnson's and Tamara Harvey's production, Kingston has the unenviable task of stepping into the white clogs of Frances Barber, who played Ratched in Edinburgh and the original West End transfer in 2004. Where Barber used to sinister advantage her improbably sculpted cheekbones, etched-on eyebrows and severe dark hair, Kingston presents a less imposing cartoon baddie. The slash of scarlet lipstick remains but her face is a spookily blank canvas, matched by the expressionless, sing-song announcements for "medication" and "group therapy" with which she controls her damaged flock.
She endows Ratched with more humanity than perhaps was originally written but as the tables turn in Act Two, power glints in her gimlet eyes and her neck brace lends her a statuesque menace. For all her passive aggressive subtlety, King-ston could get away with ratcheting her performance up half a notch, if only to match the melodrama of the piece.
Returning as McMurphy, the inveterate gambler who has faked psychosis to avoid jail, Slater bursts into the asylum like a whirlwind, questioning everything and everyone. It's hardly surprising when he whips off his towel to reveal boxer shorts adorned with a large rocket: throughout, he is a coiled, muscular spring, tongue hanging out eagerly, his never-still vulpine features recalling Jack Nicholson in the 1975 film.
At first there's a worry that this live wire will drown out the robotic, compliant inmates. But each detainee carves out his own personality, particularly the verbose, pernickety closet homosexual Dale Harding (Owen O'Neill) and the stuttering Billy Bibbitt (Paul Ready). Simon Chandler as Dr Spivey is also impressive, although he is too quick to fall for McMurphy's chauvinist charms and too often he holds the upper hand over Ratched. He and the rest of the boys should be a little more fearful of the lady in the Playtex bra for - as the horrifying denouement proves - she will stop at nothing.
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