One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield Review

8 -23 June 2018


Reviewed by Jenny Seymour

WARNING: Contains strobe lighting (which wasn’t announced at the beginning of the play) and scenes of strong violence and sexual nature.

I had read the book, watched the film and also seen a previous production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so I thought I knew what to expect and expected to be emotionally affected by tonight’s production, but not to be left speechless by the drama as it unfolded and speechless I was! For the car journey home and for some time afterwards, left with my thoughts of what I had just seen. This version of the play is without a doubt a darker depiction of some of the scenes from the film.

If you’re not aware of the story of Ken Kesey’s first novel, it is set in a mental health institution in America and explores both mental health issues, but also what happens to people when they are institutionalised. Are these people insane or are they simply shut away by a society within which they don’t fit the conventional idea of what is “normal”?

The audience is very quickly let in on the secret of Chief Bromden, the “deaf mute” and he narrates us through the life of a patient who is institutionalised from the moment that they arrive on the first day after being “committed”. A very obviously sane Randall P McMurphy (a small time criminal) almost chooses to be committed, rather than spend any more time in jail or workhouse. We watch from the moment he arrives and gets himself acquainted with his new “friends” and the rules of the institution and then witness the effects of rebellion versus the compliance of those patients who had been there for as long as Nurse Ratched herself.

The first half of the play has some funny moments and sees McMurphy (an obsessive gambler) set a wager with his fellow patients, that he will be able to get the “battleaxe” Nurse Ratched to soften and indeed crumble and allow some of the rules to be bent. What McMurphy doesn’t realise is that actually many of his new acquaintances aren’t actually committed like him and are indeed free to go whenever they choose. The ironic thing is that he, perhaps the sanest one in there, isn’t!

The set is cleverly put together to show the segregation between the “inmates” and the staff, who are able to monitor their every move through the safety of a secure glass office. The use of the nurse’s office underneath the first-floor office of the doctor shows that that whilst the doctor may have ultimate authority over the treatments given, the power to instigate those treatments very much lies with Nurse Ratched and her ward policies. I did at first find the incidental actions going on in the doctor’s office a bit distracting from the dialogue that I was actually trying hard to listen to, but as the play progressed, it cleverly showed two halves of the story in a way that is often difficult in live theatre. There was great use of the unique round Crucible stage to engage the audience and make you feel like you were in the day room with these men.

The use of music was also a clever touch. Stand by your man used to show the routine of the staff each morning and then building up to the climax of the final scene.

McMurphy wants to challenge the rules and prove to his fellow patients that they should also challenge the rules, see the “group meetings” for what they actually were, rather than therapy to aid their recovery:  use their rights to request privileges such as exercise, parties or simply to watch the tv at times when baseball games are on. However, when tragedy strikes, an angry and distraught McMurphy retaliates with even more disastrous consequences.

The play is extremely well cast and there were some incredibly moving performances from many of the diverse cast – I was particularly moved by Arthur Hughes’ portrayal of Billy Bibbit and thought Jack Tarlton was phenomenal as Harding. However, each member of the cast gave thoroughly believable performances and it moved many people to give a standing ovation. Jenny Livsey is also worth a mention as Nurse Ratched. Poor Jenny was parachuted in to perform Nurse Ratchet after injury to the previous actress ruled her out for the rest of the run. Rob Hastie apologised up front for the fact that she would have to use a script. However, you could hardly notice this at all and it often added to the performance, rather than detracted from it.

You might think it would be hard to fill the shoes of Oscar-winning Jack Nicholson, but Joel Gillman does a great job of playing the perhaps duplicitous McMurphy – you don’t ever forget that for all his frivolity, he is actually a criminal and that is the reason he is in this situation.

There is no doubt about it, there are some shocking scenes – there is not much left to the imagination when McMurphy and the Chief are ordered to receive electro convulsive therapy for their rebellious and aggressive behaviour (albeit provoked!).

A shockingly gripping performance that leaves you speechless, questioning society and the treatment of the mentally ill.

Rating: 5/5

Tickets cost from £15 to £38 (booking fees may apply).

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield from 8 -23 June 2018, for more information or to book tickets visit or call the box office on 0114 249 6000.

Crucible Theatre, 55 Norfolk Street, Sheffield, S1 1DA | 0114 249 6000

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