Ken Kesey’s seminal 1962 novel is no stranger to the stage, having been adapted into a play by Dale Wasserman and Kirk Douglas the year after its release. This 2018 production from Sheffield Theatres Resident Associate Director Javaad Alipoor is based on Wasserman’s original, but updated to reflect modern issues and provide some interesting new views on well-trodden characters.

Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest follows the residents of one of the wards of the hospital and the impact on them of new arrival RP McMurphy and his ensuing power struggle with the domineering Nurse Ratched. Although McMurphy is the main character of the piece, the book (and play) take plenty of time to introduce the other residents of the ward. Front and centre among them is Chief Bromden, a giant half-Native American patient who narrates the story and anchors events, played here with incredible gravitas by Jeremy Proulx.

Proulx is not alone in standing out in the cast, as the support is uniformly excellent from the likes of Jack Tarlton, Arthur Hughes and Shaun Mason as Harding, Billy Bibbit and Cheswick. Lucy Black, cast as Nurse Ratched, had to pull out of the production at the final moment due to an injury. Tremendous credit must go to Jenny Livsey, who stepped in with almost no notice to fill the role, bringing surprising emotion and depth of feeling to Nurse Ratched in a version of the character that was unfamiliar to me but very successful.

As for McMurphy himself, it must be said that the character must feel like a poisoned chalice to actors. Despite the juiciness of the role, those who play him stand in the shadow of Jack Nicholson’s towering performance in Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation. Even as someone who has never been overly fond of much of Nicholson’s work, he is magnificent in that role and from the outset Joel Gillman feels like he is trying too hard. His McMurphy is all cackling, physical tics and broad japery, adding an unhinged element to a character who is, famously, supposed to be completely sane.

It may be that this is a creative choice by Gillman and Alipoor, but even if so it tipped too often into caricature and grated after a while, seeming to strip the character of some of his depth. Unfortunately, Gillman also had to drop out of this production due to illness since the 13 June performance. Harry Egan, an existing member of the cast, stepped up to fill the role.

Sheffield Theatre’s production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest retained all the power of the source material and, particularly as things build to a climax, the tension and sense of impending doom is palpable. The staging is spot-on and the Crucible is, as always, a wonderful venue for theatre, adding intimacy and real connection to the events on stage.

Max Cubberley