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Review Round-up: Luke Warm Reception at Aldwych

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Marc Warren, last seen in the West End in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and previously nominated for a TMA Award for his appearance in The Pillowman is best known for BBC TV's Hustle, HBO mini-series Band of Brothers and the Sky television series Mad Dogs.

He now stars in the stage adaptation of Donn Pearce's 1965 novel Cool Hand Luke which opened at the Aldwych Theatre last night (3 October, previews from 23 September 2011).

Famously adapted into a 1967 film directed by Stuart Rosenberg and starring Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke is brought to the stage by Emma Reeves whose previous works include Carrie's War and Little Women. The play is directed for Novel Theatre by Andrew Loudon who has hemled both of Reeves' previous West End adaptations.

Warren is joined in the cast by Coronation Street’s Lee Boardman and American screen actress Lisa Eichhorn as well as Rob Falconer, Joshua McCord, Nathan Osgood), Tom Silburn and David Sturzaker. The production plays a limited West End season until 7 January 2012.

Theo Bosanquet

"Cool Hand Luke has been adapted by Emma Reeves and director Andrew Loudon from Donn Pearce's 1965 novel … Marc Warren… 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 … Warren does well with this daunting piece of stage business… even if the sleight of hand he employs would hardly qualify him for membership of the Magic Circle … Thematic blatancy is just one of this production's many crimes. Another is the ropey stage combat, which looks about as a convincing as a Monty Python wet fish-slapping contest … The supporting cast… 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 … By the climax, it was extremely difficult to care about our hero's fate."

Michael Billington

"Emma Reeves goes back to the Donn Pearce novel on which the film was based … The result is a confusing evening that seeks to portray its hero simultaneously as a God-defying rebel and a secular saint … The chief innovation of Reeves's adaptation and Andrew Loudon's production is to swathe the action in gospel music … It is clear that an attempt is being made to turn Luke into some kind of unwitting Christ-figure … The stage version cannot compete with (the film) on one simple level: the evocation of a chain-gang's sufferings under a scorching Florida sun … Luke's consumption of 50 eggs in an hour… is ingeniously staged … Although Warren has an engaging presence and a flyweight dynamism, he cannot overcome the contradictions of a script that require him to be both impish devil and noble redeemer … But it remains an oddly undramatic evening that, in strenuously seeking to mythologise Luke, undercuts his defiant humanity and simply makes him a rebel without a pause.

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Marc Warren has to eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour to win a bet … It's the highlight of what is mainly a rather tepid affair … Most theatergoers will measure it against the film … The comparison is not to the stage version's advantage … Gone, too, is the film's sensitive vision of the American landscape … Warren is good value - deadpan when he needs to be, and always watchable. He plays the banjo competently and the mouth organ rather better. But Luke's story doesn't feel truly worth telling … There are musical interludes, passionately performed by Sandra Marvin in a gospel style … Andrew Loudon's production contains some nice touches of humour, and Edward Lipscomb's design is appropriately austere, but there's a lack of pace and menace. The play has an obvious topicality, as it warns of the dangers of not taking proper care to reintegrate former soldiers into society. But it lacks real bite, and Warren's star quality doesn't redeem it."

Libby Purves
The Times

"It is, in no derogatory sense, one for the guys. For decades before The Shawshank Redemption there was Cool Hand Luke, the definitive US jail movie … Luke (Mark Warren, best known from Mad Dogs on TV) is not an innocent … Emma Reeves’ adaptation gives us short significant scenes… with scraps of relevant pain … The prison… sees Luke gaining shrugging leadership over his fellows … There is a cool, desperate stillness in him … There is a seriousness in this which goes beyond the action-movie genre. There are staging faults: the work-gang hoeing is glaringly unconvincing compared to the hard realism of the war flashback, and the brutalities too stagey for a generation used to horrid movie realism. Director Andrew Loudon could have found ways round that. But that’s a quibble: it’s a proper play, worth doing."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"Having watched the screen version a few days ago I can’t say that the play that opened last night at the Aldwych seems much different to me — apart from being inferior in almost every respect … Much remains the same … The famous sequence in which the prisoners bet on whether Cool Hand Luke can consume 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour without throwing up. It has to be said that this scene, at least, is riveting … Warren’s performance is efficient … He hasn’t got the stage charisma that might energise this frustratingly episodic show … Director Andrew Loudon has brought in a quartet of gospel singers… but it seems downright perverse to have attractive women on stage in a play that is trying to depict an all-male world of desperate sexual deprivation … I cannot see any good reason why anyone would want to stump up West End prices to see this second-rate stage version of a film that is readily available on DVD for less than a fiver."


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