"Cool Prison Drama Beats Luke"
by remotegoat reviewer for remotegoat on 01/10/11

I know that I have mentioned in other reviews the perils of being a reviewer and an actor are manifest. Think about the dilemma one faces when reviewing a play featuring a cast you don't like, and a script you find impenetrable. Or even worse one where the actors work their socks off and the script shines with brilliance that the director has managed to remove all trace of.

Now take that peril and factor in the added risk of a cast populated with people I've either worked with in the past or people I've trained with. Mix them up with a venue I adore and a playwright I have a huge admiration for and the risks are increased. So great they are that I usually eschew the job of reviewing shows that are such large potential minefields. However on this occasion I grasped the job in hand by the horns and was rewarded with that warm glow that I get when I see a cast cope with a very wordy and dense script and bring it to life with charm, pace, and wit.

The play is one of Howard Barkers most successful plays and here it is performed in a remodeled Brockley Jack Theatre that is used to great effect to recreate the interior of Middenhurst Gaol. Now reduced to burning embers the ensuing inquiry tasked with establishing the facts behind the fire uncovers layer upon layer of deceit.

As the inquiry, led by the sexually rapacious civil servant Jardine, played brilliantly by Alan Thorpe, squares up to the establishment figures, who have a myriad of agendas that are slowly revealed, the demands made of the cast increase. And they largely meet that task ably.

I do not wish to give away any of the plot twists and turns here but there are delightful scenes and electric performances scattered through this production.

Julian Bird excels as the incumbent Home Secretary and displays almost as perfect a sense of comic timing as Darren Benedict, who brings a brilliance and lightness to his role as one half of a fantastical fire investigation team. Maggie-Anne Lowe, Anne-Marie Hughes and the exceptional Matthew Eaton provide the other cast highlights.

I should add that this wordy, dense, difficult play, showing in this charming, somewhat out of the way theatre was the second play I had seen this day. The other was a still in preview star vehicle in the West End. It was Cool Hand Luke. I may review that debacle but in direct comparison this was far more entertaining and far better acted.

Cool Hand Luke costs £50 a seat in the stalls. The Hang of the Gaol costs £12. Save your pennies and see this. Actually maybe splash out on a meal in the Brockley Jack pub before heading in to the see the play. You'll have a much better evening than you would seeing Cool Hand Luke.

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