Review: Cool Hand Luke – Aldwych Theatre

Although best known for the classic film starring Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke actually started life as a partly autobiographic novel by Donn Pearce. Now, 46 years after the novel was first published, the story makes its way to the stage in its first ever theatrical adaptation.

Comparisons to the film are likely to be inevitable but as one of the small number of people never to have seen the cinematic version, this was a fresh viewing of the tale.

In post-war Florida, Luke Jackson is sent to jail after vandalising parking meters. This petty crime leads to a life of brutality in the authoritarian regime in the southern state. Under the unforgiving sun, any resistance from the prisoners is broken by sadistic guards.

It is thrust into this macho world that Luke finds himself though, not one to take to conformity easily, he soon sets about carving his own niche, either through impressing inmates with his gambling skills and his determination to eat 50 hard boiled eggs within an hour, or by testing the boundaries of his guards. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of Luke’s military past and the impact the horrors of war had on this former rising star of the US army.

Emma Reeves’ adaption of the original novel works well on stage, although the short scenes do mean that some momentum is occasionally lost. A device of having a narrator hold the piece together through the use of spirituals and gospel numbers gives an authentic Deep South feel.

In the title role, Marc Warren more than shakes off any comparison to Paul Newman in a quietly assured performance. There’s an inner torment bubbling barely beyond the surface here and a convincing look at the struggle of a man raised on discipline and military routine now having to come to terms with a very deferent regimented regime. There is also an impressive performance from Lee Boardman as Dragline, desperate for parole, initially wary of Luke’s threat to prison seniority but in the end the closest Luke gets to a friend. In a predominantly male cast, Sandra Marvin also impresses as the gospel-singing narrator Mary, providing soaring commentary on the developing action.

Andrew Loudon’s direction does drop the pace in a couple of places in this early preview, though that is easily corrected as the run continues. Edward Lipscomb’s design conjures the multitude of locales well, aided by Matthew England’s sun-drenched lighting.

The final 15 minutes do lose some punch and the ending, while moving, would benefit from ramping up the emotional hook a couple of notches but, overall, this is an impressive book-to-film-to-stage adaption. A cracking tale.

Caveat: This is a review of a preview performance. Press Night is Monday 3 October

Photo by Alastair Muir

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