Cool Hand Luke has been adapted by Emma Reeves and director Andrew Loudon from Donn Pearce’s 1965 novel - the same source that became the popular 1967 Oscar-winner starring Paul Newman.
Filling the Newman role on stage is Marc Warren, who has a good go at turning the eponymous con into a sort of secular Messiah-figure, but finds his toughest battle is not against the prison guards but rather the cliché-riddled script.
The centrepiece scene is of course the egg-eating – in which Luke downs 50 of the things to win another bet (white Russian roulette, if you like). Warren does well with this daunting piece of stage business, gurning and flatulating his way through a series of neat vignettes, even if the sleight of hand he employs would hardly qualify him for membership of the Magic Circle.
Scenes are interspersed with familiar black spirituals beautifully sung by a quartet led by Sandra Marvin and Tania Mathurin. They endorse the underlying idea that Luke, a scarred WWII vet, is a somewhat other-worldly martyr when they sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”
But such thematic blatancy is just one of this production’s many crimes. Another is the ropey stage combat, which looks about as convincing as a Monty Python wet fish-slapping contest. And the death of Luke's mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is clumsily handled and never achieves the emotional impact it should.
The supporting cast are led by Lee Boardman as Dragline, Luke’s loyal disciple and eventual biographer, and Richard Brake as the sadistic Boss Godfrey (no prison drama would be complete without an inexplicably violent guard).
But they, along with Warren, are too often let down by a script and a production that struggle with the same issues that The Shawshank Redemption failed to address two years ago – namely, how to make such familiar narrative territory come alive for a 21st-century theatregoing public. By the climax, it was extremely difficult to care about our hero’s fate.