“Cool Hand Luke” at the Aldwych Theatre

Marc Warren is a brave man. In the new stage adaptation of Cool Hand Luke, he takes on the title role immortalised by Paul Newman in the 1967 film. Like his character, a rebel with applause, it is satisfying to see a move some would call foolhardy pay off. With the help of a deft production that plays with the character’s iconic status and focuses on the original book by Don Pearce rather than the movie, Warren’s performance is commendable.

Imprisoned for petty vandalism after leaving the army, Luke Johnson’s play-it-cool attitude doesn’t help him on the chain gang. His repeated escapes inspire his fellow prisoners, but not the religious guards who conflate belief in God with the ability to conform. Director Andrew Loudon marshals his cast well, but the camaraderie amongst the prisoners is sugary – these felons are fine fellows, overwhelming the nasty prison guards with a good will that diminishes any tension.

Emma Reeves’ clever adaptation gives us plenty to think about, though. What interests her is Luke’s status as an iconoclast, a diehard atheist committed to the truth – about the fantasies of the inmates or his take on theodicy – and the irony of his elevated status amongst the prisoners who gather to hear his ‘gospel’. Reeves and Warren preserve an enigma behind the character marvellously. Even better, the script and Loudon’s direction make Cool Hand Luke a genuinely theatrical work: using a chorus to comment and set the mood through song may be an old trick, but by God it works and Sandra Marvin’s performance leading the gospel songs is luminous.

The West End may seem somewhat saturated with film tie-ins at the moment but that isn’t this production’s fault. Plays examining religion are very much in vogue and Cool Hand Luke is an interesting addition to this field. If there is any justice, it will get the audience it deserves.

Until 19 November 2011

Photo by Alaistair Muir

Written 6 October 2011 for The London Magazine

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