tue 07/12/2021

Cool Hand Luke, Aldwych Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Cool Hand Luke, Aldwych Theatre

Cool Hand Luke, Aldwych Theatre

Marc Warren isn't fit to oil Paul Newman's manacles

Marc Warren certainly appears to down the lot, though not enough to give the theatre's medical staff pausePhotos by Alastair Muir

The human spirit won't be easily vanquished, or so we're led to believe from Cool Hand Luke, which in itself should provide succour to those trapped at this stage adaptation of the novel that inspired the movie - still with me? - in the days and weeks to come. Marc Warren works hard in the role of the famously fettered Luke Jackson that brought Paul Newman a 1967 Oscar nod, and the Hustle star deserves credit first off for getting his American accent down pat.

But as adapted by Emma Reeves from the 1965 book from Donn Pearce, who co-authored the film (and was himself put up for an Oscar), the stage version makes mighty heavy going of the slog that is life in the Florida prison camp where Luke is landed: a damaged WWII vet who won't go gently into either the subservient or the sycophantic night. Scarcely has some malfeasance involving parking meters led him to the chain gang before our renegade hero learns the value of playing "a real cool hand", even if the West End fate a season or two ago of The Shawshank Redemption ought to have taught this creative team a separate lesson about tampering with audience affection for well-known celluloid titles, especially those of a prison-orientated hue.

"What about the eggs?" many will be wanting to know, mindful of the celebrated cinematic passage that presumably lives on via many a frat-house ritual today. Warren certainly appears to down quite a few of the spherical cholesterol bearers though not enough to give the theatre's medical staff pause. (Devotees of fart jokes will be happier here than at any show since Shrek.) A separate question dominated the interval as hypotheses were traded about the theatrical trickery - or actual foodstuff employed (marshmallows, anyone?) - that enables Warren to get through the scene eight times a week. That said, those preferring more of a gross-out when it comes to ingesting eggs on stage should check out Mark Rylance's imminent return in Jerusalem: no possible fakery there!

You can see what led the Novel Theatre production company to want to transpose this story for the stage: its tale of resistance in the face of authority has an inbuilt, time-honoured power that has kept One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - to cite just one thematically comparable title - current for nearly 50 years. Indeed, this play boasts a near-equivalent to Cuckoo's Nest's stammering Billy Bibbit in the gangly Rabbit (Joshua McCord), not to mention a sadistic overseer (Richard Brake's Boss) who need only shed his sunglasses and gun and don a dress to become the Nurse Ratched of the equation.

Lisa Eichhorn Cool Hand LukeWhereas Cuckoo's Nest in the theatre gives off crude but undeniable sparks, Cool Hand Luke struggles to generate much of a head of steam beyond reminding us that war ain't fun and that it's no picnic returning to civilian life when the scars of combat remain seared upon the memory. One-time film phenomenon Lisa Eichhorn (pictured left) appears briefly in the first act as Luke's teary, God-fearing mum, and devotees of the much-loved Cutter's Way will be pleased to see that movie's distaff lead doing her bit to counter the testosterone overload that comes from so male-heavy a play. A 17-strong cast, incidentally, is worth applauding in today's increasingly cautious commercial climate for straight plays: an extra star just for that.

But it seems indicative of the director Andrew Loudon's heavy-footed approach that it takes countless Negro spirituals threaded throughout to proffer lugubrious (and patronising) commentary on a narrative that is annotated far more than actually dramatised. This, at heart, is a raw, rough anatomy of the survivalist impulse and of lives pitched at extremes, and yet you'd scarcely know as much from the staggeringly dull storytelling on view. Warren possesses something of Newman's ocular shimmer alongside the necessary irreverence to fuel what at times suggests itself as a Christ-like fable. (So, for that matter, does Cuckoo's Nest.) I doubt, however, that I was the only one who began murmuring assent to some of the spirituals, though perhaps not for the right reasons. The evening's most apt lyric: "All my trials, Lord, soon be over."

  • Cool Hand Luke at the Aldwych Theatre until 7 January

 

Its tale of resistance in the face of authority has an inbuilt, time-honoured power

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2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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