GT Stage

Cool Hand Luke

Gives us the Blues ...

Literary adaptation is a tricky thing. Take, for example, the unstoppable War Horse, which began at the National Theatre and is now in its third year in the West End. Beautifully translated to the stage, the book was made into a theatrical event. On the other (lukewarm) hand, there’s Cool Hand Luke. 
I should probably begin by saying that I don’t know Donn Pearce’s 1965 novel and have only a passing knowledge of the subsequent film starring Paul Newman at his blue-eyed best. But this is the theatre, and an adaptation should stand on its own two feet. 
The story, for those as unfamiliar as I, is one of a romanticised felon, ‘Cool Hand’ Luke Jackson, who, demoted from his position in the US military, turns to drink and finds himself on a road gang after committing petty crime  The story of his manifold escapes become legendary, until, almost driven mad by flashbacks to WWII, he is killed in a police standoff. Thus the man becomes the legend.
Director Andrew Loudon and designer Edward Lipscomb create a sweltering world of burnt earth and rough hewn living evocative of the American South in the 1940s. Gospel music, sung by a choric quartet lead by Sandra Marvin’s rich voiced Mary, fills the air, punctuating scenes and acting as a commentary on the action. Bookending some 20 scenes in the play, the frequency of these interludes deadens their impact – sad, as they are the only attempt to theatricalise Emma Reeves’ flat and uninspired adaptation and soon outstay their welcome. The dialogue is functional, too heavy on exposition and, in the cardinal sin of adaptation, much of the play happens off-stage (including Luke’s recaptures) denying the audience of any real action. 
As Luke, Marc Warren (perhaps best known from his roles in Hustle and Mad Dogs) has the same piercing baby blues as his predecessor Paul Newman, but none of the charm. His performance is curiously introverted, lacking stage presence and personality. Warren leaves you wondering quite how he exerts a Svengali-like power over his fellow inmates, and indeed how he becomes a folk hero. Elsewhere, Lee Boardman (former Coronation Street bad boy and bear pin-up) impresses as meat-head Dragline while Lisa Eichhorn as Luke’s evangelic mother and Nathan Osgood as a seedy floorwalker are worthy of a better vehicle.
There is an overall lack of ingenuity and theatrical drive in the adaptation and direction. Told as a linear flashback, the play is inert, sleepwalking along to a climax which is neither redemptive nor exhilarating. While Luke’s laid back approach to life may be his charm, here the production is so un-engaging it’s less cool and more frozen. 
Cool Hand Luke is at the Aldwych Theatre, London until 7 January 2012, click here for tickets.
Words: Dan Usztan
Photo: Alastair Muir

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