Cool Hand Luke
15th November 2017
The Guildhall Theatre, Derby
Type of Production
Author: Joyce Handbury
Don Pearce wrote the book which was the basis for the 1967 film starring Paul Newman and Emma Reeves wrote a stage version based not so much on the film as the original book. Set in the early 1950‘s Luke Jackson, a decorated Korean war veteran, is caught by the police for trying to steal from parking meters, arrested, sent to a Florida Correction Centre, and is soon revered by his fellow prisoners for basically being a maverick trouble-maker.
The play retrospectively tells the story of Luke but I don’t feel this aspect was sufficiently emphasized which added, for me, to a somewhat confusing first Act which I also felt was quite ponderous, definitely due to the script and not the acting. However, the action, the emotions, the conflicts between the characters, the powerful interpretations and imagery in Act 2, certainly made up for this.
The part of Luke, who incidentally got the nickname ‘Cool Hand’ from his prowess at poker, was wonderfully played by Josh Hayes. He superbly captured all the elements of this somewhat charismatic, complex character - the stubbornness, the anger, the frustrations, the rebelliousness, the defiance - it was a truly great performance. Another superb portrayal came from Ian Jones as Dragline the ‘top dog’ and hardened prison inmate. He tries every way to undermine Luke but after Luke’s refusal to ‘submit’ during their boxing match, he ends up admiring and respecting him and even escapes with him. At this point I must say that this boxing match was just so realistic, the punches really did appear to connect and the way in which Luke repeatedly hit the deck and then staggered up again to take more punishment was exceptional. What a terrific job the fight co-ordinator, Kheenan Jones, and of course Josh and Ian did to manage this so brilliantly.
All of the other eight inmates were splendid and each had their own idiosyncrasies which were impeccably carried out. Jason Parker (Curly), how angry was he! Kheenan Jones (Sailor), Jack Readyhoof (Rabbit) - loved his banjo playing - Adam Guest (Society Red), Josh C Sly (Alibi Gibson), Ross Lowe (Tattoo), Andrew Bould (Babalugats) and Kim Harris (Carr). Mik Horvath commanded the stage as Boss Kean - nobody messed with him. Steve Dunning gave a fine performance as the man in charge. He was powerful yet quietly unnerving as the manipulative sadistic Captain but cross him at your peril, as did Luke, and he certainly unleashed, up till this point well hidden, his totally brutal and savage nature. Good support came from Pip Price as Boss Paul and the silent, but menacingly Heath Parkin, as Boss Godfrey. Paul Stanley as John the Preacher along with two Salvation Army ladies, Verna Bayliss as Martha and Sara Bolger-Evans as Mary, exquisitely sang gospels and soul music at various points in the show. Verna also gave a moving performance as Luke’s mother and bikini clad Sara lapped up the sun knowingly tormenting the prisoners whilst they were out working.
The escapes by Luke were well orchestrated and good use was made of the central aisle of the auditorium for his escapes and recaptures. A scene that had virtually everyone enthralled was the one where Luke takes a bet that he can eat fifty boiled eggs. This was so well and innovatively executed that you believed that it actually had been accomplished. The set and props were very impressive allowing for the different locations to be swiftly brought into focus, in the main achieved by the well disciplined cast members themselves.
Adding to the whole ambience was the excellent lighting plot, wonderful music, which was played throughout, and appropriate costumes. Once again, this group has excelled in masterfully delivering a very demanding and complex piece of powerful and emotional drama.
Congratulations must go to the Director, Barry Taylor, to the whole team and to a terrific group of actors.