Cool Hand Luke, Aldwych Theatre, London

Marc Warren is not likely to be admitted to hospital with cholesterol poisoning any time soon. In the central episode of Donn Pearce’s 1965 novel and the subsequent film version starring Paul Newman, protagonist Luke eats 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour for a bet in the Florida prison camp to which he
has been sent for cutting the heads off parking meters. In Andrew Loudon’s production, the illusionism is clever but only the first egg is genuine.

Comparisons would be invidious with Newman’s take on the former war hero whose philosophy is “always play a cool hand” even while compulsively chafing up against the violent, redneck “bosses” who run the camp. For the most part, such comparisons are not necessary: Emma Reeves’s adaptation is of the novel, not the screenplay. Consequently, Luke is much angrier than the smilingly defiant near-masochist of the film.

Loudon and Reeves have made a number of stage adaptations for their company Novel Theatre, working up to West End outings for Little Women and Carrie’s War. Their experience and canniness are evident. For instance, the film has only two female characters, both minor: Luke’s mother and a girl who is ogled by the road gang one day. Incorporating a chorus of four gospel singers into this version helps mitigate the gender imbalance, as well as adding fluidity during the changes and bulking out the running time. These singers are impressively led by Sandra Marvin.

The central issue, though, pulls us back to Newman. The comparison is not necessary in terms of portrayal, but it is inevitable with respect to the package. Despite its semi-autobiographical authenticity, Cool Hand Luke does not have significant status as a novel. It is the film version that enthrals, and it does so because that incarnation of Luke charms us and engages our sympathies. This stage Luke, for all Warren’s abilities, is neither seductive nor rascally enough to compel us through the evening. In emotional terms – and to quote the film’s most memorable line, absent from this adaptation – “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Cool Hand Luke

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