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A CurtainUp London Review
Cool Hand Luke
It’s a leap for adaptor Emma Reeves from the lovely but very English production of Nina Bawden’s novel for children r Carrie's War to this American prison drama set in the South. Reeves also adapted Anne of Green Gables and Little Women set on the other side of the Atlantic.
Producers may think a stage production of a successful film is a shortcut recipe for theatrical success but if we look back, successful stage adaptations of hit movies are few and far between but still they keep on coming. Cool Hand Luke is of that genre. It isn’t a disaster but it somehow lacks that spark of energy, originality and charisma of Paul Newman’s legendary performance. Although Emma Reeves has adapted the play from Donn Pearce’s novel rather than from the film, the many scene cuts end with a snatch of gospel or blues music, each brief coda bringing a stilted, hiccupping sense to the production that makes us long for the smooth segue of film editing.
The production is framed by an opening and closing scene set among prisoners on a gardening prison work gang. This explainins the legend that was Luke Jackson, against a pretty set, the backdrop of a small wooden church, a telegraph pole, a palm tree and a blue sky which looks painted, until you notice the clouds are rolling by. Lee Boardman plays Dragline, the narrator of the now fabled exploits of Cool Hand Luke.
We first meet our hero decapitating parking meters, a crime forgivable by many of us penalised motorists but which sentences Luke to a few years in jail. The play takes us through his poker successes, how a gunshot goes off and all jump out of their skin but Luke moves not a muscle, through an emotional visit from his mother to the bet where he claims to be able to eat 50 hard boiled in an hour.
Now it is one thing to film this scene but another entirely to recreate it on the live stage but Luke, hero that he is, manages it with aplomb and great dramatic tension. The director cuts into various moments in this gastronomic feat, the best being at 49 eggs down and one to go with a minute to spare. I’m looking in the programme to find the illusionist but there’s no-one credited. Could these eggs be insubstantial prawn crackers or marshmallows or is Marc Warren an expert with slight of hand? It’s a great scene with plenty of comedy.
The scenes in the war are first narrated by Luke to the strum of his banjo and we see a German woman about to be brutally raped by two American soldiers — until Luke claims her for himself and then releases her without further harm. After several escapes and escapades Luke is recaptured and apparently cowed by the most sadistic of the guards, Boss Godfrey (Richard Brake). The second half does flow better than the first which will also probably improve as the ensemble cast get into their stride during the course of the run.
Marc Warren has a cool rating but Paul Newman is a hard act to follow. Some of the direction detailing is unrealistic with men waving hoes, the gardening kind, in mid air and not giving the impression that this is hard labour. Lest we forget the real message of Cool Hand Luke, the Howard League for Penal Reform campaigning for fewer people to be imprisoned, are given a back page advertisement on the cover of the programme.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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