One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Gielgud Theatre, London

Taking over the asylum
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The Independent Culture

On the poster outside the Gielgud Theatre, there's a quote from Frances Barber that declares that Christian Slater "was born to play" Randle P McMurphy. It's a recommendation somewhat compromised by the fact that she just happens to be his co-star. One wonders why the publicists didn't go the whole hog and have Slater describe her as the "Nurse Ratched of one's dreams" and both of them extol Terry Johnson as God's gift to directing.

On the poster outside the Gielgud Theatre, there's a quote from Frances Barber that declares that Christian Slater "was born to play" Randle P McMurphy. It's a recommendation somewhat compromised by the fact that she just happens to be his co-star. One wonders why the publicists didn't go the whole hog and have Slater describe her as the "Nurse Ratched of one's dreams" and both of them extol Terry Johnson as God's gift to directing.

That irritation aside, it's a pleasure to report that the production (co-directed by Tamara Harvey) survives its passage from the euphoria and hype of the Edinburgh Festival to the cold, unforgiving light of the West End stage with admirable vigour and ballsy flair.

There are many things to like about Slater's performance as the misfit subversive who galvanises the ward of mental patients. High on the list is its complete unselfishness. Cocking a mean, mocking eyebrow à la Jack Nicholson, his chunky Randle has all the right taunting, bad-boy charm: you'd be torn between slapping him and snogging him. He exudes droll hostility. But the ego of Slater himself is not inflated. He bounces beautifully off the other actors - who include Mackenzie Crook (spot-on as the stammering, sensitive Billy) and a fine Owen O'Neill, who radiates buttoned-up, prissy denial as Dale, the married homosexual.

The bad news - which somehow got lost in the dispatches from Edinburgh - is that the play (adapted by Dale Wasserman from the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey) is a parade of some of the least fortunate prejudices of Sixties counterculture. Take the treatment of Nurse Ratched. Barber is superb in the role. She floats about the ward in her own atmosphere of weirdly dissociated smiling perfection, like a Stepford nurse. When the suggestion of having a carnival in the ward is mooted at a patients' meeting, her scarlet lips greet the word in a wonderful rictus of reluctance as though she had misheard it as "leprosy". She's all the more lethal because she is so glazed in her sincere conviction that the regime is beneficial to the patients.

But the argument against authority cannot be conducted scrupulously in a play that sets up, in this nurse, a personification of it who has no redeeming feature. Even the name the author gives her is a slur, as McMurphy ("Nurse Rat-shit") makes clear on more than one occasion. (Equipping a sexually impotent character with the name "Harding" is scarcely cricket, either.)

Ratched is also the projection, in starched white linen, of a male castration complex. She even has Randle lobotomised (a procedure that one of the characters refers to as "castration of the brain"), and, in this production, we see her stroke the brow of the mentally neutered hero strapped down on his trolley. The spectacle stirs uneasy memories of Salome. But then, the play's whole slant on women is far from positive. They are either "ball-cutters" or sex objects like the two floozies McMurphy smuggles in for an illicit party.

Johnson has, almost concurrently, directed a new play by Joe Penhall. An earlier work by that writer helps to illustrate, by contrast, the flaws in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In Penhall's Blue/Orange, authority is represented by two doctors arguing over the diagnosis of a black patient as a schizophrenic. In both their differing professional attitudes toward the man, what is liberal and what is repressive are brilliantly intertwined - giving you a powerful sense of the intractable difficulties in reaching decisions about the welfare of the mentally ill. The "you have nothing to lose but your chains" approach of Cuckoo's Nest is facile, as is the glib linkage with racial oppression. Johnson was right to keep the piece in period, for it is now just that: a period piece that lacks what it most abhors - authority.

To 26 November (020-7494 5065)

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