COOL HAND LUKE
Aldwych Theatre, London WC2
Opened 3 October, 2011
***
Marc Warren is not likely to be admitted to hospital with cholesterol poisoning any time soon. In the central episode of Donn Pearce’s 1965 novel and the subsequent movie version starring Paul Newman, protagonist Luke eats 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour for a bet in the Florida prison camp to which he has been sent for cutting the heads off parking meters. In Andrew Loudon’s production, the illusionism is clever but only the first egg is genuine; on press night, Warren even “clocked” the audience as he bit into it.
    
Comparisons would be invidious with Newman’s screen version of the former war hero whose philosophy is “always play a cool hand” even whilst compulsively chafing up against the violent, redneck “bosses” who run the camp. For the most part, such comparisons are not necessary: Emma Reeves’ adaptation is of the novel, not the screenplay. Consequently, Luke is much angrier, rather than the smilingly defiant near-masochist on celluloid. Warren’s Luke is always visibly aware when he is sassing one of the bosses.
    
Loudon and Reeves have made a number of stage adaptations for their company Novel Theatre, working up to West End outings for their Little Women and Carrie’s War. Their experience and canniness are evident. For instance, the film has only two female characters, both minor: Luke’s mother, and a girl who is ogled by the road gang one day. Thus, incorporating into this version a chorus of four gospel singers helps mitigate the gender imbalance, as well as serving to add fluidity during the changes between what would otherwise be too many, too short scenes and bulking out the running time a little. These singers are impressively led by Sandra Marvin.
    
The central issue, though, pulls us back to Newman. The comparison, as I say, is not necessary in terms of portrayal, but it is inevitable with respect to the package. Despite its semi-autobiographical authenticity, Cool Hand Luke does not have significant status as a novel. It is the film version that enthrals, and it does so because that incarnation of Luke charms us and engages our sympathies. This stage Luke, for all Warren’s abilities, is neither seductive, nor as an alternative rascally, enough to compel us through the evening. In emotional terms – and to quote the film’s most memorable line, which does not occur in this adaptation – “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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