Lee Boardman and Marc Warren in Cool Hand Luke
(© Alastair Muir)
Lee Boardman and Marc Warren in Cool Hand Luke
(© Alastair Muir)
The new West End stage version of Cool Hand Luke, now at the Aldwych Theatre, dips back to Donn Pearce's 1965 source novel rather than the better known film version starring Paul Newman (which Pearce also co-scripted) for its inspiration. And while there's something undeniably potent about the scenario -- the cool, seemingly immune loner who bucks against the bosses -- Andrew Loudon's production is lacking in both atmosphere and intensity.

A decorated veteran of the Second World War, Luke Jackson (Marc Warren) is sent to the slammer for petty vandalism, but he refuses to let the system break him. He won't be cowed by the bosses and makes repeated attempts to escape, barely batting an eyelid when sent to stew in the "box."

His story is told with awe and reverence by fellow inmate Dragline (Lee Boardman). but in Emma Reeves' adaptation, it's a choppy and episodic piece of storytelling, which makes it hard to really care about Luke's plight or to judge the effect his behavior has on those around him when the secondary characters are so thinly sketched.

The highlight of the production is the famous egg-eating scene in which Luke accepts a bet that he can get through 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour. This is staged with a degree of real tension and panache -- although it's impossible not to start wondering about the degree of stage trickery involved in the scene's execution, for the sake of Warren's digestive tract if nothing else.

While the production is ribboned with Negro spirituals, and every scene change echoes with song, the production fudges the Christian allegory and there's little sense of journey or transition in Luke's story. Warren's almost aloof air of composure is convincingly eroded over time, but due to this unflappable quality can translates, Luke often seems in danger of blending into the background; Boardman however makes a good foil as the soft-hearted con who becomes Luke's closest ally.

Reeves' adaptation goes further than the film in suggesting that Luke's turmoil and defiant attitude stems from the atrocities he witnessed during the war. but it doesn't explore this with any real depth (That said, the wartime flashbacks are convincingly brtual). As a result his final desperate plea seems unduly melodramatic. The searing Southern heat and oppressive all-male atmosphere of the prison environment are also rather tepidly evoked by Loudon's altogether lukewarm production.