“50 hard boiled eggs…in an hour”
A random fact about me is that I am terrible when it comes to having seen classic movies. It’s a constant source of amusement in pub conversations as people can’t quite believe the list of films I’ve never seen but for whatever reason, I’ve never really been particularly minded to watching them. Consequently I have a pile of unopened DVDs* that people keep giving me as presents or loans that are, honestly, on the list of things I will one day get round to watching.
This convoluted beginning should therefore present you with no surprise when I then say that I have never seen the film of Cool Hand Luke, a stage version of which has now started previewing in the Aldwych Theatre. Adapted for the stage by Emma Reeves, from the original novel by Donn Pearce, the story revolves around Luke Jackson, a WWII vet left unsupported on his return to the US and forced into desperate measures, soon ends up in a Florida prison camp. There, he soon becomes a legend with his fellow chain gang inmates with his nonchalant swagger, his impervious refusal to be broken by the guards and his constant prison escapes.
On the face of it this wouldn’t have been the type of show I would have said I would like, but I have to say I rather enjoyed myself. Despite there being a cast of 17, this really is the story of one man and how he built up a mythical aura around himself. Marc Warren as this titular rebel is agreeably persuasive as a cool cat, taking anything and everything in his stride but equally convincing as we slowly come to see what this adopted persona is masking. There’s sly humour in his unflappable demeanour, his lean body stretching out lazily under the sun or coiled up in the ‘box’ but always doing what he wants to do, but there’s also an element of broader humour, most of which comes from the scene with the eggs. It is really well done and I don’t want to spoil it too much by saying much more, though a couple of people need to work on smoothing out their sleight-of-hand techniques…
Reeves’ play is structured with many short scenes which does mean that the play doesn’t flow so much as become something of a mosaic, fragments coming together and building up to create the bigger picture. I quite liked this approach, it does mean that there isn’t necessarily the building up of a grand dramatic narrative as such but in some ways that wouldn’t suit the underlying tone of quiet tragedy. The presence of Mary, a narrator/commentator figure who sings spirituals, gospel numbers and prayer songs serves as a constant reminder of the better life to which (some of) the prisoners aspire and Sandra Marvin sings beautifully. But employed as she is in every single scene change, it is made to feel less of an integral part of the play and more of a simple device which comes close to overwhelming which is a real shame.
For me, the second act could do with a trim as we move to the finale, something which could well be addressed through some tightening up before opening night. And ultimately the structure of the play works against many of the supporting characters being able to make too much of an impact, though there is notably good work from Lee Boardman as Luke’s main buddy Dragline, David Sturzaker’s cerebral Society Red and Richard Brake’s sadistic Boss Godfrey.
But anchored by a strong central performance from Marc Warren, subtly reminding us of the importance of not abandoning soldiers returning from duty from today’s conflicts, Cool Hand Luke made for a rather enjoyable evening. It isn’t anything grand or hugely dramatic and so I suspect it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I would argue that there’s room for something fairly undemanding that’s a little less worthy, that tells its story in a different way. Just don’t ask me how it compares to the film 😉