Cool Hand Luke is the story of a war veteran in America who, due to his experience of WWII, has lost his faith in both God and the hypocritical authorities that use religion to justify their actions. Based on the 1965 book written by Donn Pearce and not the successful 1967 film adaptation starring the indomitable Paul Newman. Revised by Emma Reeves for its world premiere on the West End, the results are less than enchanting.
There are a number of problems with the production that stand between it and a good review, not least of which is the undeniably poor stage violence. Even sitting at the very back of the stalls I could see the obvious lack of contact where guards were supposed to be hitting and kicking the convicts all the time. It just felt a bit farcical. This wasn’t helped by the pathetic use of props in a couple of scenes. When one person had to bring on a turtle that Boss Godfrey had shot, he brings on an obviously plastic turtle that was about as large as his torso and was probably found at the Early Learning Centre. A short time later when the group was set to be harassed by a ‘dangerous snake’ they spent a couple of minutes fighting with empty space until Warren reached behind a bush and pulled out a toy snake, making a clowning effort to simulate life in the poor thing. Embarrassing doesn’t cover it, especially for a West End show.
The script itself was possibly the main stumbling block. I’m not sure how Luke was able to grapple with the apparent absence of his God when he had the far more immediate concern of trying to hammer his way through a dull, fragmented and one-dimensional script. There were only a few mentions of his struggle with God and it was never fully explored, the overriding coolness of his character being apparently more important than any emotional growth or expression, even in a monologue. The script just wasn’t good enough, simple as that.
The gospel singing that sprang up throughout the show, most obviously in scene changes, was undoubtedly beautiful but far from adding to the show, actually took from it. Although the story is told in the form of an obvious narrative (where Dragline tells the story to his fellow chain gang members) the intermittent singing further fragmented the scenes, making them appear like chapters in a book more than a single continuous story. It was also a rather clumsy way to place the image of God in the foreground of the whole show and undermined to a large extent the efforts of the other people in the chain gang to make an impact on the audience.
Marc Warren’s efforts as Cool Hand Luke himself were strong. Throughout he was the cool figure you expect to see and he gave a good showcase of his skills as a performer as well. His cameo with a banjo was impressive and could have been used more to greater effect and his comedic turn when working his way through the infamous egg-eating scene really made the audience laugh, which was sorely needed by that point. It felt like he was constantly struggling with a script that gave him very little room to expand his character and as a result the character seemed a bit wooden. When he was given the opportunity to expand a bit, he took them with both hands but such occasions were few and far between.
One character who was given plenty of opportunity to shine and who took every opportunity with both hands and made a damn good show out of it was Lee Boardman as Dragline. From the very beginning where he starts telling the story you can feel he has a fully developed character and as the story of Cool Hand Luke progresses he is the one who appears to be at the centre of it all. Boardman gave a first class performance and I look forward to seeing him in whatever he turns his hand to next. Dragline was the character you related to, the character you empathised with and this was largely thanks to Boardman's riveting, nuanced and emotionally charged performance.
It wasn’t all roses when it came to the cast, however, and now’s the time where I turn more critical eyes to the cast and in particular to Richard Brake, who played the part of Boss Godfrey, the big bad wolf of the prison. He is meant to be intimidating and terrifying, the kind of person you don’t want to cross if you have a particular attachment to any part of your body that could easily be removed. He is not at all. Brake is more caricature than character and stalks around the stage with the bearing of a one-dimensional bad guy empty behind the stereotypical sunglasses and hat. There is no character behind the costume at all and the lack of fear deeply undermines the rest of the show. If I hear the phrase ‘get your mind right’ one more time I’ll do something terrible. Like imitate his accent.
What is meant to be a gritty, dirty and violent show turned into a comedic farce. I was very disappointed by Cool Hand Luke, the script being the main fault but the direction being just as responsible for what felt like a sixth form show despite the best efforts of Warren, Boardman and a few others. This is a play about a chain gang and as Johnny Cash reminds us, ‘there ain’t no good chain gang.’
Written by Emma Reeves; Directed by Andrew Loudon; At the Aldwych Theatre; Starring Marc Warren, Lee Boardman, Richard Brake, Bret Jones, Sondra Marvin, Tania Mathurin; Runs from 23 September 11 - 7 January 12.
John Ord (05/10/2011)