Theatre Review - 'Cool Hand Luke'

Posted by Alexander Hay

One of the seminal films of the past 50 years has been Cool Hand Luke for its depiction of the brutality of which man is capable as well as providing a devastating critique of the American penal system which although doing away with the notorious chain gang system still retains the barbaric death penalty

Marc Warren as Cool Hand Luke - probably doesn't want a Scotch egg...It was perhaps inevitable that a stage version would be mounted but the new production of Cool Hand Luke (Aldwych Theatre) directed by Andrew Loudon is based on the original 1965 book by former jailbird Donn Pearce and it would be unfair to compare it to the movie.

The charismatic rebel of the title is a Second World War veteran who winds up a prisoner in a chain-gang in Florida after drunkenly vandalising parking meters. Inside he quickly earns a reputation as a maverick and trouble-maker refusing to knuckle down. He was respect by fearlessly picking up a snake that terrifies everyone else and it is not long before he proves himself the most audacious of escape artists after two unsuccessful attempts, for which he receive savage punishments.

Emma Reeves’ stage adaptation, based on Pearce’s own experiences in prison takes a while to get going and build tension – it is only in the second half that the play becomes gripping and we really become involved in the plight of the protagonist.

Despite the sombre nature of the theme there are flashes of wry humour and an astonishing sequence in which the prisoners bet on whether our anti-hero can consume 50 hard-boiled eggs without throwing up – you are well advised to eat before coming to the show as this might well take your appetite away.

A novel addition to the show is the quartet of gospel singers who punctuate the scenes with spirituals and pinpoint Luke’s loss of faith since his incarceration, as well as creating the right mood and atmosphere in which the drama is played out, while Edward Lipscomb’s design of high wire fences and a cramped bunkhouse adds the necessary touch of realism.

There is a cool, desperate stillness in Marc Warren’s performance as the defiant and disillusioned Luke and he manages to gain our emotions, while Richard Brake is particularly chilling as a sadistic prison guard in sinister sunglasses.

With penal reform still a hot topic, the play has an obvious topicality as it warns of the dangers of not taking proper care to reintegrate former soldiers into society.

Plays until January 7, 2012

Box office: 0844 847 2429

Press: Arthur Leone PR 0207 836 7660

By Laurence Green

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Alexander Hay

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