The title of this play may well ring a bell since it follows in the distant wake of the 1967 film starring Paul Newman in the title role. The film was based on the gritty novel by Donn Pearce who co-wrote the screenplay and also had a minor part in the film. However, Pearce was unimpressed by either the finished film or Paul Newman, and I am not sure that he will be any more impressed by this new stage version.
The story is actually an amalgam of incidents and personalities which Donn Pearce assembled from his experiences in prison and on the road gang, or chain gang if you prefer. Mr Pearce never actually met the legendary prison inmate known as Cool Hand Luke, but the stories about him which circulated in prison inspired the novel which was published in 1965.
We first hear about Luke Jackson long after his departure from the prison, as a current inmate, Dragline, starts to recount the story of the near-mythical prisoner. We witness scenes from Jackson's time fighting in Europe during the Second World War where he saw atrocities perpetrated by both the allies and the Nazis. And we see Jackson bluffing with a dud hand in a card game in goal, struggling to eat 50 boiled eggs as a famous bet and escaping from prison several times which ultimately led to his death.
Donn Pearce claims that Paul Newman was too scrawny to play the role of Luke Jackson effectively as he 'wouldn't have lasted five minutes on the road'. So I doubt that Mr Pearce will warm to Marc Warren's version of Luke Jackson, as he is also rather slim-framed and a little on the 'scrawny' side too, and has more than a hint of the 'pop star' about him. Those issues aside, Marc Warren does imbue Jackson with an endearing, charismatic nature which is hard to resist, but unfortunately never seems wholly convincing.
Richard Brake's Boss Godfrey looks every inch the part of a menacing road gang boss complete with sinister reflective sunglasses, but when he speaks he sounds more camp than scary. Lee Boardman provides good support as well as some humour as the brutish prisoner/ narrator, Dragline who comes to admire and respect the unorthodox Jackson.
A double-act of spiritual singers are joined by a couple of salvation Army recruits to sing during scenes changes. Though they introduce some atmosphere early on in the proceedings, their repetitive appearances rapidly became intrusive and redundant.
Re-reading Mr Pearce's impressively authentic and compelling novel draws a sharp contrast with this stage version. Though Marc Warren's Jackson captures our imagination with his charming audacity and off-beat aversion to authority, Andrew Loudon's direction never transfers the sheer awe and wonder that fellow prisoners felt for this man - to the extent that they were reduced to spending sleepless nights on the edges of their bunks anxiously awaiting what he would do next – to us, the audience. So, we seem more like people in cars passively speeding by the chain gang on the open road, rather than being involved participants in the extraordinary tale of Jackson and his war of attrition with the prison guards. Instead of exuding tension, the play ends up being somewhat bland and strangely unaffecting. Disappointing.
" Inferior in almost every respect to the Paul Newman film. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Warren has an engaging presence and a flyweight dynamism."
Michael Billington for the Guardian