Theatre review: The Shawshank Redemption

Theatre Royal Bath until 1 April
By Melissa Blease

1982: Stephen King publishes his Different Seasons collection, subtitled Hope Springs Eternal and including the long short story Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, later to be republished as a stand-alone novella. The critics went wild, with the New York Times calling it “the most satisfying tale of unjust imprisonment and offbeat escape since The Count of Monte Cristo” and our own English Times saying the story has “all the makings of a contemporary classic.” 

A dozen years later, scriptwriter/director Frank Darabont adapt the novella for the big screen, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as lead characters Andy Dufresne and Ellis ‘Red’ Redding. The film wins multiple awards including seven Oscar nominations and is today widely considered by pundits and laypeople alike to be one of the best films of all time. 

In 2003, Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns’ adapt King’s original novella for the stage; three decades on, and their adaptation has been rewritten for a brand new touring production currently locked in at Theatre Royal Bath.

Locked in? Yes, I chose those words carefully: The Shawshank Redemption tells the tale of banker Andy Dufresne, who is handed a double life sentence for the brutal murder of his wife and her lover despite protesting his innocence. Once incarcerated at Maine’s notorious Shawshank facility, Andy forges an unlikely friendship with fellow prisoner Red and discovers multiple ways to deal with both the injustice of his sentence and the harsh brutality of his situation by developing his stone carving ‘hobby’, raising funds for a library, offering financial tax accountancy services for the prison’s corrupt warden… and throughout it all, maintaining a crush on Rita Hayworth (and thereby hangs a really big tale beyond the poster than hangs on Andy’s wall). 

Taking a story that relies on layer upon layer of clever plot twists, impeccable representations of the very nature of, erm, human nature and cameos that deftly summarise all aspects of the human condition to the stage is A Very Big Ask – and this production largely rises to the challenge of taking that VBA on. 

Director David Esbjornson and Designer Gary McCann have done a grand job in combining forces to create an enthralling drama played out against a suitably claustrophobic, grim prison backdrop, with evocative light and soundscapes playing way more than a supporting role in driving the story along to its conclusion.  

As Red, Ben Onwukwe may have looked to his iconic cinematic equivalent for inspiration (how could you not?), but he’s still very much his own man in terms of the pathos, wit and wisdom that he brings to the role. Joe Absolom’s Andy, however, is occasionally too passive to garner the required empathy, almost fading into insignificance during key scenes. Elsewhere, Mark Heenehan as corrupt prison warden Stammas is just about chillingly uncompromising enough to be sinister, Joe Reisig just about brutally barbarous enough to make us loathe corrupt guard Hadley, and Jay Marsh and Leigh Jones (as meat-wrangling ‘sisters’ Bogs and Rooster respectively) just about maniacal enough to make their roles as vile, violent predators upholding their own, twisted customs within the Shawshank pecking order convincing.

Perhaps it really is too much of A Very Big Ask, though, to expect the vast emotional landscapes that King managed to bring to such an oppressive, confined setting to be fully represented in a theatrical context, or to assume that the power and charisma of a big Hollywood blockbuster could successfully transmute to 130 minutes of live theatre. But in conveying the unambiguous, sincere significance of The Shawshank Redemption‘s overall defining themes of triumph and truth conquering tribulation and harsh adversity, it’s captivating enough. 

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Featured image: Ben Onwukwe as Ellis ‘Red’ Redding and Joe Absolom as Andy Dufresne | Credit: Jack Merriman