One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Review – Sheffield Crucible Theatre
By Karl Hornsey, June 2018
I’ll admit to a certain sense of apprehension when heading to the Crucible Theatre to watch director Javaad Alipoor’s adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. For one thing, it was the first time I’d been to the iconic Sheffield venue to watch anything other than snooker, and seeing the stage stripped almost bare for the minimalist set came as quite a shock. Most importantly though was that familiar sense of dread when going to see a production of one of your favourite films, and hoping that it would at least live up to expectations, and hopefully surpass them.
On that count, I clearly had no need to fear. This was an engrossing production of what is far an easy subject matter to deal with, but the balancing act of not parodying the subject of mental health, while still applying a light touch where necessary was achieved throughout. This isn’t a play for the faint of heart, with several emotional and tortuous scenes, especially after the interval, as events move towards their inevitable tragic conclusion.
“Immersing into the character”
One of the delights of Alipoor’s work here is that his source material is Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, and not the more well-known, even iconic, Jack Nicholson film of 1975. While still including the scenes and context one would expect to see from a story set in the Oregon psychiatric hospital, the edginess of the novel and the greater emphasis on the character of Chief Bromden works beautifully here, ensuring the play isn’t merely about the clash of heads between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.
Which leads me nicely on to the cast, who make Alipoor’s direction come to life, sometimes in unexpected ways, with some of those in the more minor roles really shining brightly. Joel Gillman avoids the temptation to merely perform a Nicholson impersonation in his role as McMurphy, immersing himself into the character more and more as the drama unfolded, while Jenny Livsey as Nurse Ratched crucially stayed on the right side of making her character, one of film’s ultimate villains, something of a caricature, investing her with feelings and emotions that I didn’t imagine possible.
The greater emphasis on the commanding Jeremy Proulx in his role as Chief Bromden was inspired, acting as narrator throughout, and making him a living, breathing character utterly central to events made him a mesmerising watch. His two-handers with McMurphy in particular tugged at the heartstrings. Special mention also has to go to Jack Tarlton as Dale Harding and Arthur Hughes as Billy Bibbitt, who between them, for me, ended up stealing the show with beautifully weighted performances full of pathos, but also of humour.
The sparse set, with just one large open space and two occasionally lit boxes, acting as the offices of the hospital staff, helped to create an intimate, almost claustrophobic environment for the cast to work in, and their closeness to the audience gave a voyeuristic feel that proved suitably uncomfortable at times. There’s a difficult balance to get right between portraying what is a harrowing subject matter, yet still making it an enjoyable experience. That Alipoor and the cast were able to do that in a play that features subjects such as suicide, murder, institutionalised bullying, mental illness and electro-shock therapy, is a testament to this outstanding piece of work.
images: Mark Douet