Cool Hand Luke, Aldwych Theatre, London
Thursday 06 October 2011
It's only a couple of years since a stage version of The Shawshank Redemption unceremoniously sank in the West End. That show's fate has not deterred director Andrew Loudon and writer Emma Reeves from theatrically tampering with another well-loved celluloid prison story, Cool Hand Luke. The supposedly superior twist to this project is that it goes back to the original 1965 novel by Donn Pearce on which the 1967 movie was based. But it proves to be a manoeuvre that creates more problems than it solves.
The film famously begins in droll fashion with Paul Newman drunkenly decapitating a line of parking meters. This is a misdemeanour that gets Luke, a Second World War hero, slung into captivity, where he inspires his fellow inmates on the Florida chain gang with his flip refusal to truckle to authority or "git his mind right". Here, though, as in the book, the tale – now referred to as "the gospel according to Saint Luke" – is recounted retrospectively in the yard by the church where, on his third attempt to escape, Luke Jackson met his end. Just in case we are in any doubt that this is the saga of a martyrdom foretold, or that the protagonist has been elevated to a secular Jesus-status, there's a gospel-singing chorus who let rip with "Were you there when they crucified Our Lord?"
The running commentary via spirituals has a suffocating effect on the now over-fragmented drama, giving it a phony, sanctimonious cast and blurring the irony whereby this latter-day Christ is also a rebel who rails against God as the justifying prototype of all oppressive authority. This is a shame, not least because Marc Warren is pretty much ideal in the role. He radiates just the kind of laid-back insolence and laconically cocky charisma that are calculated to incense his jealous tormentor, Boss Godfrey (a lean, mean, faintly camp Richard Brake). The celebrated sequence where Luke wins the bet that he can consume 50 eggs in an hour is wittily staged and provokes much interval speculation (are the bulk of those globular white objects made of spun-sugar?). Just as he delightfully understates the physical farce of this scene (that requires broad contortions and Vesuvian farting), so, during the flashbacks to the war, Warren communicates, entirely without melodrama, the psychological damage Luke suffered. He plays a cool hand in a sadly heavy-handed adaptation.
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