Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

4 star rating
An entertaining, poigant and worthy revival of a still important play that asks powerfully relevant questions about how we accommodate individuality in our ever-restrictive society.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Chickenshed Theatre

Image: Chickenshed Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 12 May 2018

Dale Wasserman, based on Ken Kesey's novel


Bradley Davis - Chief Bromden

Paul Harris - Harding

Finn Walters - Billy

Benjy Kemp - Scanion

Ashley Driver - Chiswick

Jack Hoskins - Martini

George Gavas - Ruckley

Olivier LeClair - McMurphy

Christopher Perifimou - Aide Warren

Sebastian Ross - Aide Williams

Jonny Morton - Dr Spivey

Belinda McGuirk - Nurse Ratched

Louise Connolly - Nurse Flinn

Lauren Cambridge - Candy

Chelsea Crowder - Sandra


Three geese in a flock

one flew east

one flew west

one flew over the cuckoo's nest.

Based on Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, this powerful and affecting play by Dale Wasserman concerns Randall Patrick McMurphy who agrees to be committed to an asylum for mental assessment, rather than spend another spell in jail.

His rebellious instincts throw him into constant conflict with the hospital authorities, and as he attempts to help the other patients take control of their lives, he comes to a devastating discovery of where true power lies.

Also adapted into a hugely significant film in 1975 (with Jack Nicholson as a hugely charismatic McMurphy), Chickenshed's fresh new interpretation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest will be a physical and thrilling version of this moving and touching story.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Thursday 19 April 2018
Review star rating image for 3 stars

For most of us, I suspect, the title of this play evokes memories of the 1975 film of the same name starring Jack Nicholson, whose uniquely gifted portrayal contributed to it winning all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor in Lead Role, Actress in Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay).

Mr Nicholson's wonderfully authentic and powerful characterisation certainly stamped a lasting impression on those of us who saw and revelled in his performance.

The film, though, was predated by Dale Wasserman's stage play which premiered in 1963 and is, like the film, based on Ken Kesey's 1962 novel.

It's this earlier stage version of this taught and riveting story that Chickenshed's artistic director, Lou Stein, boldly and rightly revives here, because the play still has much to offer modern audiences even if its storyline asks us to consider sensitive issues that we might often prefer to shy away from.

R. P. McMurphy is a likeable rogue, petty criminal and gambler with a penchant for sports and sex, who regularly falls foul of the authorities and thus regularly ends-up in prison.

When he's found guilty of statutory rape, he's sent not to prison again, but to a mental hospital for psychological assessment, and ends-up on a ward ruled with a rod of the stiffest iron by Nurse Ratched.

Though McMurphy easily charms the other patients into becoming his pals - even though he takes all their money and cigarettes in card games - he soon finds himself in opposition to Nurse Ratched's unbendable rules and domineering persona.

The scene is set for inevitable conflict and a battle of wills that only one of them can win.

Robin Don's set-design lowers the ceiling in Chickenshed's studio theatre, providing not only the skylight window which serves as Chief Bromden's means of escape, but also enhances the feeling of claustrophobia in the relatively small acting space, where no-one can escape each other or the all-pervading gaze of the hectoring head nurse.

The last time I saw this play was back in 2006 at the Garrick Theatre with Christian Slater as R. P. McMurphy.

In my comments about that production, I wondered how far the aim was to re-create the film because a lot of the characters physically resembled those in the screen version.

Of course, there are some physical characteristics which are essential to the story - Chief Bromden (well-played by Bradley Davis in this version) has to be big in terms of physical stature and Billy Bibbit needs to be slightly-built and thus lacking the physical strength to challenge authority.

I'd wondered, though, if director Lou Stein could find something different in terms of the portrayal of R. P. McMurphy whilst still preserving the essential cocky, ebullient, and free-wheeling nature of the character.

Though Olivier LeClair undoubtedly provides a mesmerising and compelling performance, there's still much of Jack Nicholson's definition of the character in evidence, even down to the same kind of headgear.

Perhaps the character is just too vivid now in our psyche, and to tinker too much with it might detract from the power of the play as a whole.

Whatever the case, Olivier LeClair's McMurphy is undeniably entertaining and humorous in the earlier scenes, and finds potent poignancy later on.

He's well-served with excellent support, especially from Paul Harris as the voluntary patient, Harding, who can't cope with his younger wife; Belinda McGuirk's rigidly authoritarian Nurse Ratched; and Bradley Davis's towering Chief who is plagued by fears of being unable to be 'big enough' to be himself.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest asks us to consider a huge range of questions - apart from the matter of how we look after those wrestling with mental ill-health.

In particular, it asks us to consider how we deal with characters who don't fit neatly into society without appearing to 'make waves', such as challenging authority and living outside of 'accepted' norms.

That is just as relevant today as it ever was - possibly more so given the nature of our technological society and ever-nagging social media that can stifle both creativity and the essential individuality on which it so vitally depends.

Lou Stein's worthy, entertaining and poignant revival ably proves that Dale Wasserman's play and Ken Kesey's original story still have the power to captivate, illuminate and challenge us.

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