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The Vintage Guide To London | December 14, 2017

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Theatre review: Cool Hand Luke

Sixties film Cold Hand Luke has now been brought to stage. Can Marc Warren live up to Paul Newman’s legendary performance? Rebecca McWattie reviews.

I was as intrigued as anyone to see the world premiere of the stage version of Cool Hand Luke. Any production was always going to have a tough time living up to the original 1967 film starring Paul Newman  – who charismatically brought to life, with a sly grin and a glint in his eye, the war veteran turned criminal Luke Jackson. Don Pearce originally wrote the novel when his own criminal acts found him a member of a similar chain gang where he would hear stories of a Luke figure, idolised by the inmates, who had stalwartly refused to conform to the prison rules and regulations he found himself subject to.

Directed by Andrew Loudon and adapted for the stage by Emma Reeves, the production excelled with the imaginative set design by Edward Lipscomb but fell sadly short of the mark with casting Marc Warren in a role he was so clearly punching above his weight to pull off. Some praise has to be given to his harmonica skills but his banjo talents wouldn’t have made it onto the first round of Britain’s Got Talent – and that’s saying something! Warren wasn’t terrible he just wasn’t good enough. The only performance of any real merit was Richard Brake’s perfectly mean take on Boss Godfrey, Lieutenant.

Something about this production did not quite ring true – the gospel singers were an unnecessary and distracting addition, not to mention the unconvincing American accents and almost farcical portrayal of ‘hard labour’. The lighting by Matthew Eagland was not as effective as it might have been – the open road scenes could so easily have been re-imagined; the inmates toiling in the blistering midday sun, stuck in the middle of nowhere and only the most desperate prepared to make a run for freedom.

Probably the most famous scene in the 1967  film sees Paul Newman eating 50 boiled eggs to win a bet and more importantly prove to the men his indestructible will power – this was in fact wonderfully recaptured, without doubt the best scene of the play and the breaking wind noises certainly got plenty of laughs.

Marc Warren declared in interviews during rehearsals that he would be interpreting the role his own way. This may in hindsight have been his downfall. Many of the audience will have seen the original version and perhaps want to see a similar portrayal of Luke Jackson. Marc Warren played it flat, without the arrogance and endearing humour Paul Newman brought to the character.

The second act was considerably better than the first. Would I recommend going to see it? No – I would simply suggest purchasing the Cool Hand Luke DVD and watching some fine acting at a 1/10th of the price. Call me harsh, but we live in economically difficult times where only the best of the West End warrants the expense and effort.

If you want to see for yourself Cool Hand Luke is at The Aldwych Theatre, London until 7 January 2012.

Photo: Alastair Muir