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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
COOL HAND LUKE
at the Aldwych

FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
By DONALD HUTERA

  Ph: Alastair Muir

Sometimes an adaptation of a work from one medium to another so imprints itself on popular culture that any attempts to re-imagine the source material inevitably carry excess baggage. Such is the case with the Oscar-winning 1967 film version of Donn Pearce’s loosely autobiographical novel Cool Hand Luke. The movie was as much about the mythologizing of Paul Newman as it was about giving the same treatment to the enigmatic but magnetic titular character he played.
 
In this respectable and yet somehow fundamentally bogus staging by Novel Theatre’s resident writer Emma Reeves and its artistic director Andrew Loudon, the British actor Marc Warren (best known for the television series Hustle) steps capably into Newman’s shoes as ex-soldier turned chain-gang convict Luke Jackson. The bones of Pearce’s episodic narrative still poke through, with Luke set up as a sort of ambiguous surrogate Christ figure martyred on the cross of his own self-destructive, God-doubting will. The difference between the film and stage versions is that here our sanctified, rule-breaking anti-hero is given more of a back story (including being identified as a preacher’s son, along with the recreation of a harrowing wartime incident) that to some extent helps explain his personality and subsequent behaviour.
 
We’re in the American south, Florida to be more precise. Unfortunately the production, although economically designed by Edward Lipscomb to fit the Aldwych’s compact stage, fails to convincingly convey the sweaty, oppressive heat of that location. The setting could use more damp and dirt. It doesn’t help that small details – notably a rubbery snake, a turtle and the too-weightless parking meters that Luke is famously decapitating at the start of the film – don’t ring true, either. The scenes are bridged by gospel tunes, beautifully sung mainly by Tania Mathurin and especially Sandra Marvin, which firmly posit the quasi-religious allegorical overtones of Luke’s "ballad" (the word fellow inmates use to describe his story within the script’s extended flashback structure). The music provides thematic context, but the net effect becomes plodding.
 
Probably the high point of the play, as in the film, is the sequence in which Luke quietly sets up a bet that he can consume 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour. This is handled with a humour and prestidigatatory skill that enlivens the performance and heightens our engagement with it. (Good, too, to witness a more honest depiction of the effects of such a singular gastronomic blow-out than mid-1960s Hollywood could handle because at that time movie stars were not likely to be seen or heard passing gas.) The egg-eating scene is balanced by the aforementioned flashback-within-a flashback that offers up one of the more atrocious experiences of Luke, the decorated war veteran. This brings act one to a sobering close, while the second act traces the blend of brutality-laden masochism and sly, blasphemous defiance that ultimately leads to Luke’s downfall and legend.
 
The 16-strong supporting cast is competent, with Kenneth Jay more than that in the small role of one of the prison’s lesser bosses. Richard Brake also makes a mark as the lean, mean, shotgun-toting authoritarian, sinister behind opaque sunglasses, who shapes up as Luke’s principal adversary. As for Warren, he’s absolutely fine as a Luke more articulate than Newman’s but lacking the latter’s charismatic mystique. Unsurprisingly, the show has not proven to be a substantial success. Originally scheduled to run until January 2012, it is now set to close on November 19.

 


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