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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Cool Hand Luke
Aldwych Theatre  Autumn-Winter 2011

A stage version of The Shawshank Redemption a couple of seasons back copied the film so slavishly and unimaginatively that it had little purpose for being. Emma Reeves' play of Cool Hand Luke doesn't fall into the same trap, by returning to Donn Pearce's original novel rather than the 1967 film. 

The play includes material not in the film and looks at the rest from a different angle, and thus offers an interestingly new and moving portrait of the rebellious chain gang prisoner who becomes a mythic hero to the other convicts. 

Chief among the additions are preliminary scenes and later flashbacks that provide a backstory for Luke Jackson, letting us know, for example, that he was a plumber in civilian life and, more importantly, that he was a decorated World War Two soldier whose experience of witnessing and participating in the horrors of war destroyed his faith in God and man, and led to his attempt to float through life as cool and uninvolved as possible. 

On film we were willing to accept Paul Newman as a cool antihero just by definition, but even though the wartime sequences aren't handled all that well by director Andrew Loudon, they do flesh out the character nicely. 

The film saw Luke from the outside and was aware mainly of his effect on others, but the play tells us his story. It's not necessarily better, and we do miss Paul Newman, but the stage version is sufficiently different to capture us and keep us involved. 

Of course some of the episodes we remember from the film are repeated here – the drunken crime that gets Luke arrested in the first place, the egg-eating wager, the escape schemes – while others, like the race to finish a day's roadwork early and the single most famous line of dialogue in the film*, are omitted. 

Reeves also adds a one-woman Chorus figure (sometimes backed by others) to punctuate each scene with snatches of appropriate spirituals and gospel songs, lending the story some emotional resonances. 

Marc Warren, best known as a television actor, is a magnetic presence and easily holds the stage and our attention, though he wrestles with the script's attempts to depict Luke's inner torments. 

Lee Boardman is personable in the George Kennedy role of Luke's buddy and Richard Brake intimidating as the chief prison guard. And a special salute to dialect coach Rick Lipton for helping all the actors get the Southern American accents so right, adding significantly to the production's sense of a real time and place.

Gerald Berkowitz

*'What we have here is a failure to communicate.'

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Review -   Cool Hand Luke - Aldwych 2011

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