Lucy Porter and Phil Nichol are currently starring in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Gielgud alongside Christian Slater, Mackenzie Crook and Frances Barber. Laura North catches up with the two comedians – and quite a few of the others – in the men’s dressing room to find out what it’s like in the madhouse.
The ensemble cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are comedians rather than actors. One of my questions is immediately consigned to the dustbin: are there a lot of jokes flying about backstage? As we step into the men’s dressing room the answer hits me in the face like a custard pie. Taking on two comedians at once was brave I thought, but three or four might be hazardous. Canadian Phil Nichol plays Cheswick, an inmate of the sanatorium, and Lucy Porter is Nurse Flinn. Sitting on the sofa playing with a yo-yo is Ian Coppinger, another inmate, and a very tall Irish man strides in singing “Ladies in my dressing room. Sexy ladies in my dressing room.” “That’s Brendan Dempsey,” Lucy explains, “he plays the Indian Chief.” “I thought the Chief was meant to be mute”, I venture. “Yes, maybe he should be more method,” says Lucy. So, with other guest appearances, exits for fag breaks, loud mobile phone calls and regular announcements on the tannoy, the stage is set for a comedy cabaret. Feeling chronically unfunny, I close the windows to keep out the noise from Shaftesbury Avenue and shut us all into the madhouse…
"It's basically not making people laugh and every comedian knows what that’s like."
A team of comedians in a serious play is an inspired and potentially risky idea. Guy Masterson, who was due to be directing Cuckoo’s Nest but pulled out due to personal reasons, had already experimented with the concept at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. In the jury-room drama Twelve Angry Men, Phil Nichol joined fellow comedians including Bill Bailey, Steve Frost and Jeff Green. The enterprise paid off, with several awards and transfers to international festivals in Wellington, Perth and Adelaide. Casting comedians was a matter of convenience rather than a brainwave: Owen O’Neill, Juror 8 and Harding in Cuckoo’s Nest, said, “Let’s just cast all my friends” who happened to be comedians. Lucy goes for a quick cigarette break while Phil tells me a bit more. “No one could believe comedians could be serious which is silly because we don't walk around all our lives wearing rubber noses and pushing people down drains.” In fact, The Daily Telegraph said that Phil’s performance of Juror 10, a bigoted racist, was show stopping and “scarily unfunny”. “Are you sure that wasn't a review for your show?” digs Lucy, now topped up with nicotine. Brendan, applying make-up and a huge bandage, adds, “Actually, doing serious stuff is not such a dramatic change. It's basically not making people laugh and every comedian knows what that’s like. We've all at one stage not made anyone laugh.” Lucy, incredulous: “Have you?” “Okay, apart from Lucy Porter.”
The institution in Cuckoo’s Nest is certainly not a funny place. The set is chillingly clinical and Frances Barber as Nurse Ratched presides over the collection of mostly voluntary patients with obsessive control, disguising malice with a sugary coating. In swaggers Randle Patrick McMurphy (Christian Slater), feigning madness to avoid jail. Determined to break the nurse’s rigid regime, he introduces a taste of freedom and fun, instigating a basketball game and a wild party inside the sanatorium. But the clash between Randle and Ratched ultimately ends in tragedy. Lucy and Phil are on opposite sides of the battle line. Phil makes an impressive transformation into the emotionally disturbed Cheswick, complete with “a dumpy shirt”, thick glasses and physical ticks. Lucy describes her nurse, “She is quite professional and by the end of the play she is hardened, but she is mousy – that is her overwhelming characteristic.” The staff generally make the emotional problems of the patients worse but Cheswick and Nurse Flynn’s relationship seems to be more amorous than antagonistic.
“Nurse Flinn is my favourite of the staff. Cheswick can't get enough of the little mousy nurse.”
“He spends a lot of the play with his hand down his trousers.”
“Yes I do, especially when Nurse Flynn is in view.”
“It's terribly flattering.”
“Even when we're not on stage it's terribly flattering.”
Phil is an old hand at serious acting, having starred in Boy George’s Taboo as Philip Sallon as well as in Twelve Angry Men. For Lucy, it’s all still new. “Never acted in my life. I was in a school nativity play.” Has it been a baptism by fire? “It’s been great fun, it’s a nice introductory to acting since I’m not having to deal with a big part. Not sure if I’ll do it again. I’ll do what I’m told, that’s the way I get through life.” Porter, softly spoken and just 5ft tall (“I haven't grown since I was 14”), comes across as pleasant and demure but apparently her comedy act is utterly filthy – “it’s what works in a comedy club late at night when everyone is drunk”. She’s been described as “a Blue Peter presenter on a porn marathon”, which she confirms as accurate. And it turns out she’s even been in a porn documentary (documentary not film) – Phil hosted Pornorama and Lucy was the “roving reporter”. Lucy claims, “It’s the porn documentary that set me off on the rocky road to filth. Before that I was a lovely girl.” The discovery that totally destroyed her innocence was that the semen in porn films is fake. “It’s made of conditioner and a bit of water, or egg whites, depending on what you’re aiming for.” Phil questions, quite rightly, “Is this the sort of stuff your theatregoers want to read about?”
The quick exchange of jokes is an indication of the rapport they have as performers. Despite the fact that the lead is played by a big Hollywood star, reviews have regularly praised the ensemble. “We've worked together a lot,” explains Phil, “so we have relationships that make it easier – it gives you a bit of shorthand, you know how to bounce off each other and that adds spontaneity to the acting. Some actors might not be comfortable with that, but we prefer it not to be the same every night.” The rapport is broken by another interlude: Phil’s mobile phone starts ringing, “Hello. Hiya. I’m just in the middle of an interview. What’s happened, have you talked to him?” I can only just hear Lucy over the top of Phil’s conversation: “I always turn my phone off for interviews. But it wouldn’t ring anyway, I’ve spoken to my mum already today, that’s pretty much it.” “Yes,” pipes up Ian on the couch, “it’s a lack of professionalism really.” Phil expresses deep apologises.
The run up to Cuckoo’s Nest press night in Edinburgh was strewn with problems, with Christian Slater falling ill with chicken pox and Guy Masterson pulling out of the production. Lucy recalls, “I don't remember having any problems. I remember it all being a beautiful dream.” Phil agrees, “It was, it was a beautiful dream where everything just went according to plan and everyone laughed and giggled all the way through, nobody got sick, we all got along really well and we held hands on the way to the theatre most days. Brendan used to pick us up in his big yellow bus and we’d sing the happy theatre song on the way to the show.” Or was the beautiful dream a bit of a nightmare? “Everything that could have gone wrong seemed to be going wrong. But it's fitting for the play. There's a certain amount of madness in the show and, unconsciously, people were just being a bit mad off stage.”
"He spends a lot of the play with his hand down his trousers."
As if on cue, Gavin Robertson (who plays the wheelchair-bound Scanlon) bursts into the room and declares that Christian Slater is not turning up tonight and that he’s taking over his role. “Are you doing it in the wheelchair?” Phil asks. “Yeah, it’s quite exhausting so sitting down would be better”. I had to ask, is he joking? “I certainly hope so,” says Phil. Brendan interjects dramatically, “Was he joking or have I got the greatest exclusive ever? Forget the theatre, I’m going straight to The Sun.” On the subject of Slater, Lucy and Phil both agree that they thought they’d get more recognition from being in a play alongside a big Hollywood star, but it appears that no-one cares very much. “It is very frustrating,” says Lucy, “I try to drop it into conversation. I even tried to tell the man in the bakery – ‘I’m in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest… you know with Christian Slater…? in the West End’ – while he was wrapping up my bread. The look on his face just said, ‘Why is she telling me this?’ He really didn’t care at all.” Ian offers a different approach, “I try to go in on an oblique angle like “Isn’t Jack Nicholson marvellous…?’” Phil says he’s going to resort to advertising it on his clothes. “I was going to get a T-shirt printed saying ‘I’m in Cuckoo’s Nest’ just so I can sit on the tube and wait for people to talk to me. Just ride the tube from Heathrow to Cockfosters waiting for conversations.” Lucy replies, “You normally have a T-shirt saying ‘suck my ****’.” Phil nods his head. “Yes. I’ve had more interest from that one.”
Suddenly, there’s a loud bang emanating from somewhere backstage and Ian yells, “Oh my god, he’s been shot!” It’s probably about time to end the interview. Brendan, who was a tall Irish man 40 minutes ago, is now a very tall Indian chief. Lucy has to go back down to the girls’ dressing room to get ready and there’s barely been enough time to talk about giant hermaphrodite snails, Chihuahua dogs and Lucy becoming a man.
Phil walks me down to the stage door, and goes off to make another phone call. Phew. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: the best place for comedians is the madhouse.