‘Cool Hand Luke’ at Aldwych Theatre

Adapted from the novel by Donn Pearce, the same source for the iconic Paul Newman movie, ‘Cool Hand Luke’ is a portrait of a man trying to escape.  At first it appears that he is trying to escape the hot Florida prison in which he is incarcerated for decapitating parking meters, but as the play develops, is becomes clear that he is trying to escape his own memories of things done and not done in a turbulent past.

I approached the play with nothing more than two images from the Hollywood movie in my head: Paul Newman drunk, laughing on the ground after he’d sawn the tops off a row of parking meters, and another scene of the actor, pale faced, stomach distended, as he attempted to eat 50 boiled eggs for a wager.  I couldn’t recall if he won the bet or not.

Even to a viewer with those meagre recollections, Marc Warren faces a huge challenge to follow Paul Newman in the role, but he does have a certain something that draws the eye whenever he is in stage, which is for most of the running time.

The play raises questions about morality, personal responsibility, and, to a certain extent, religion.  The counterpoint to the story of Luke, incarcerated but determined not to buckle in the face of brutality and danger, is provided by a chorus of women who, singing spirituals and gospel songs, containing their own dreams of escape and freedom, punctuate each change of scene.

At the beginning of the play Luke is portrayed as the heroic rebel, a leader of the disenfranchised, a decorated war hero determinedly insubordinate; but gradually we learn that he is haunted by his experiences both in his childhood and his actions during the war in Europe.  He’s not a killer, but he has killed men; he’s not violent but he has witnessed women attacked and stood by helpless.  The threat of beatings from the ‘bosses’ in the jail are nothing compared to the horror in his own head.  The painful flashbacks are acted out in sharp staccato scenes, in which the actors switch between characters with discomfiting suddenness.

The performances engaged me such that I was rooting for Luke throughout; cheering for him on each escape attempt, shocked for the pain of the beatings, disappointed when he cowers before ‘the boss’, and finally, resolved, with his final decision at the climax of the piece.

And then of course there is the debate over how many eggs Marc Warren actually eats.  The first one is definitely a real egg; but after that I’m not so sure.  And if they’re not real eggs, what are they?  And if they’re fake, who makes them?  It must be a limited market for fake edible eggs, that are easier to eat than real eggs……

Wherever you are, what ever you do, always play a cool hand.

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