I love film but scratch the surface and you will find I have missed many films you would regard as ‘classics’. They are on a mental list somewhere, films to watch one rainy Sunday afternoon when I get the choice to do whatever I fancy. On Monday night I went to the Press Night of the new stage adaptation of Donn Pearce’s original 1965 book Cool Hand Luke. Now I have another film on my list of films to see. That book formed the basis of the classic film, and Donn Pearce won an Academy award for his work on the screenplay of the film. I know you are still with me! I could say I have another book to add to my enormous reading list but, based on what I know about Paul Newman (those eyes! that rugged handsomeness!) and the clips I have seen, let’s just say I have more of an incentive to fit those 126 minutes into my busy little life than to put aside my usual light reading for a novel about hard times on a chain gang.
The lead role of the new West End show now playing at the Aldwych Theatre is played by Marc Warren, best known as con man Danny Blue in BBC series Hustle. I can imagine that it is no easy task, following a performance by arguably the most popular American actor of the 60s at his peak of popularity, and which earned Paul Newman an Oscar nomination back in 1967. Despite not having seen the film, I was really interested to see how Marc Warren would come across, especially given the fair amount of publicity around the opening.
It was a warm evening and there was a huge buzz on the pavement outside the theatre before the show began. The actors took a few minutes to warm up, or maybe it was my ear to adjust to the Southern accents (which I do think they pulled off pretty well). Luke Jackson is the formerly decorated war hero arrested for drunkenly ‘knocking the heads off’ some parking meters and who ends up on the chain gang in Florida. A non-conformist and his own man, you can imagine how he gets on with the cruel bosses whilst the other prisoners come to idolise him, in particular Dragline, played convincingly by Lee Boardman. Donn Pearce was on a chain gang when he first wrote the book so that lends some truth to the story, however the play does not show quite how violent or dirty this life really would have been.
But back to Warren. As on TV, Warren has much charm and from my great height in the Grand (call it Vertiginous) Circle I could not make out his features, but even from high up there he has a physique and a manner which has you watching him wherever he is on the stage. Not the superstar status of Newman, perhaps, or the leading man good looks, but in my opinion he did not let himself down on any front.
The highlight of the first half, and really the entire show, is the ‘egg scene’ where Luke takes on a spontaneous bet that he can eat 50 hard boiled eggs in an hour without puking. Warren is brilliant in this scene and, coming as it does before the interval, it is all the audience can talk about. He is humorous and the sleight of hand, or just plain heroic egg eating, is a marvel to behold. I was also delighted to find that Marc Warren can play the banjo, and pretty well, and no I only promised not to mention the ukelele in this post (damn, I just did it). And he plays the mouth organ!
I was never going to slate this show, since I know director Andrew Loudon (a man lucky enough to be stepping out with my darling friend Felicity Duncan) and it wouldn’t be the friendliest way to return the favour of the complimentary tickets, but I wouldn’t lie and say it’s good if it wasn’t. The show has its highlights and I say they are Marc Warren and the 50 (or at least 20) eggs. What on earth are they made of? And if the film isn’t on television over Christmas, that’s me off to add it to my Lovefilm rental list.