Review – Cool Hand Luke, Aldwych Theatre

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Hopefully you will never hear the Whingers addressing anyone as “dude”. And if you attempt to proffer either of us a “high five” expect a glacial stare in return. Watch the hands go deep into the pockets.

And unlike the youth of today (or was it yesterday?) we are sparing with the use of the word “cool” despite its new lease of life on Doctor Who, choosing to reserve its use for comments about the weather. You have our permission to put us up against the wall and shoot us should we ever use it as an affirmative.

“Cool” is that rare theatre auditorium that doesn’t resemble a sauna, Andrew’s reaction to the oeuvre of Mr Pinter, or just a cup of tea left unattended beside the Russell Hobbs.

So it was some surprise to us that in the programme for Emma Reeves‘ stage adaptation of ex-con Donn Pearce‘s novel Cool Hand Luke the QI-ish “Cool Hand Luke Facts” reveal that 1825 was the year that ‘cool’ was first used to mean ‘calmly audacious’. The Whingers, particularly Phil, will of course still see this as recent linguistic contagion.

Andrew has never seen the 1967 Paul Newman film which popularised the story. Phil remembers it for one famous scene only. How unfortunate that the programme notes and the eating-50-hard-boiled-eggs moment are by far the most interesting things about this production.

Ex-war vet Luke Jackson (Marc Warren) is incarcerated in a Florida* chain-gang** in the 1940s for decapitating parking meters***. We follow his tale of prison friendships, hardships and attempts to escape. But is he sinner Luke or Saint Luke****? And does it matter in a god-less world? Luke is revered in the telling of his story to the point of hagiography and religious iconography is plastered all over the shop. With a trowel: a telegraph pole becomes a crucifix in the finale.

CHL opens with fellow inmate Dragline (Lee Boardman) eulogising to his fellow cons about the legendary Luke Jackson before flashing back to tell his story. Scene changes are given added clunk with the intercession of what used to be called Negro Spirituals to emphasise his saintly status and facilitate smooth set changes. But they’re too frequent and quickly become irritating.

Is it Reeves’ script or Andrew Loudon‘s direction that seems to have drained potentially dramatic moments of any impetus? Either way it’s disappointing: they were the team behind the unexpectedly captivating Carrie’s WarTo say the play is sluggish misrepresents slugs.

The shooting of a “turtle” which looked like an armadillo from Row K and rubber rattlesnake elicited a few giggles (though nice to see the critters credited individually in the programme as the work of Oliver Hipwell and Leigh Cranston respectively).

Warren sports a grubby vest very nicely, thank you very much, when when he’s not topless. And when he is topless, Phil swears he rivals Jude Law for the best-chest-on display-in-the-West-End crown. You could swing a hammock between his nipples.

Even when farting he has ‘calmy audacious’ down to a ‘T’.

CHL is extravagant in its casting: 17 actors are involved including Lisa Eichhorn (remember her as Richard Gere’s girlfriend in Yanks? “No, actually” says Andrew). Her 5 minute scene as Luke’s religious mother gives her scant opportunity to add poignancy. Prison guard Richard Brake aims for a James Coburn-ish calm audacity from behind his sunglasses. Others in the cast have little to work on, remaining ciphers even when their accents are not undecipherable.

We cannot depart without comment on that egg scene. Luke is challenged to eat 50 hard boiled eggs***** in an hour with the warders and prisoners betting on the outcome. It is deftly handled, we certainly appear to see Warren consume more than is reasonably possible. Is it slight-of-hand or are they fake eggs? They certainly look a little too large, but it’s the only moment the show really becomes interesting. With Andrew showing sudden engagement by leaning forward in his seat you can only imagine how Edwina Currie might react. Ah, the magic of theatre. This scene alone bumped up our rating.

But there was one more thing lurking on the side of plus. We were thrilled to visit the Aldwych Theatre again, in fact this was the first visit to it as the Whingers never quite got around to Dirty Dancing.

One of the gospellers sings about “the handwriting on the wall”. Sadly the writing must surely be on the wall for this show and an opportunity to visit this playhouse will surely present itself again soon.

Half-boiled. Half-baked. Over-egged.

Footnotes (from the Cool Hand Luke****** Facts in the programme)

* Florida first called ‘the Sunshine State’ in 1970
**Chain-gangs first used in the USA in the 1890s, phased out in 1955, brought back by some states in 1995.
32 – number of London boroughs, whose mayors refer to themselves as the Chain Gang
***First meter introduced in Oklahoma City in 1935
****1151 verses in the Gospel of Luke
*****250 grammes of fat in 50 eggs
****** 4,840,000 – number of results from googling Cool Hand Luke. We tested this so you needn’t trouble yourselves. At time of writing it was 1,930,000 if you do this as written with capitals letters in place. 4,770,000 if you do it without capitals. You’d think this production would be increasing its Google potential really.


4 Responses to “Review – Cool Hand Luke, Aldwych Theatre”

  1. Ali67 Says:

    Please review Rock Of Ages…. Bit bored of all the play reviews…

  2. ja Says:

    If you have seen the film, why bother? If you haven’t seen the film, see the film instead.
    The best bit in the film is the car wash scene. I presume that is not in the stage version?

  3. aaron Says:

    lets take a great film and turn it into a west end play… And lets do a barbershop quartet version of Hamlet… WHY? and NO! cool handy shandy…

  4. jonathan Says:

    Dont be put off – it is a great evening out!

    great acting and staging!

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