The Shawshank Redemption

Apr 25 2023 | By More

★★★☆☆     Faithful retelling

Festival Theatre: Mon 24 – Sat 29 Apr 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

The Shawshank Redemption at the Festival Theatre provides a dependable evening of cogent storytelling.

Owen O’Neill and Dave Jones state that their adaptation is from Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. While this is accurate, it is undoubtedly the case that the enduring popularity of Frank Darabont’s 1994 filmed version starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman provides the impetus for the play to keep returning – including in this new production from Bill Kenwright, directed by David Esbjornson.

Ben Onwukwe, Kieran Garland, Joe Absolom, Jules Brown and Jay Marsh in The Shawshank Redemption. Pic: Jack Merriman

It is often forgotten that the movie was a comparative box-office flop on first release, so great has its subsequent following become; there is no doubt this version will please its many admirers.

The story of Andy Dufresne, wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover, and of his stoic reaction to the brutality of both sadistic staff and abusive fellow inmates, his friendship with prison ‘fixer’ Red, and his refusal to give up hope – all of this is conveyed in a linear and accessible manner, and with relative economy.

The familiar problems of representing onstage a story best known as a film do surface, however. The scene changes, accompanied by era-specific music, soon become wearing. This is not helped by the demands of Gary McCann’s set, whose impressive realism merely adds to the problems of constant re-setting.

flexible and sympathetic

No problems with Chris Davey’s lighting, which is thoroughly effective, helping to evoke a celebrated sequence from late in the film that is completely absent here.

Esbjornson’s direction is flexible and sympathetic, but the production does not always achieve the necessary emotional impact. What might have seemed more intense at the King’s theatre appears slightly lost in the expanses of the Festival theatre.

Joe Absolom, Leigh Jones and Jay Marsh in the Shawshank Redemption Pic: Jack-Merriman

The required degree of light and shade is not always achieved, and so neither the bleakness nor the optimistic possibilities are fully explored. The (considerable) violence that occurs offstage is more troubling than the less convincing onstage fights.

Joe Absolom (familiar from Doc Martin and EastEnders) portrays Dufresne with a welcome absence of histrionics, an approach mirrored by Mark Heenehan as the stiff-backed Warden Stammas. This contrasts cleverly with the more expansive performances of Joe Reisig as Officer Hadley and some of the other prison inmates.

Elsewhere in the cast there is some highly impressive acting – Kenneth Jay is utterly persuasive as the ageing, totally institutionalised convict, Brooksie.

considerable drive

Coulter Dittman, meanwhile (in his first professional stage engagement) provides considerable drive to what would otherwise be an overlong second act with his engaging and heartfelt performance as young car thief Tommy.

The play may claim to be closer to the original story, but whenever the original source and the film version diverge it understandably leans more towards the latter. One element common to all iterations is the use of Red, ‘the man who can get things’, as a narrator figure.

Ben Onwukwe and Joe Absolom in The Shawshank Redemption. Pic: Jack Merriman

However, what can be used unobtrusively as voiceover in the cinema comes over differently on stage. This leads to a series of monologues directed to the audience that strive for Arthur Milleresque profundity, but end up as overly portentous and (on at least one occasion) thoroughly ill-advised.

That the excellent Ben Onwukwe copes so well with these asides is testament to how completely he inhabits the character. His grounded performance helps centre a production that – while a solid adaptation – does struggle to carve out its own identity.

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes (including one interval)
Festival Theatre, 13-29 Nicolson St, EH8 9FT
Monday 24 – Saturday 29 April 2023
Evenings at 7.30 pm, Matinees Thurs & Sat at 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: Book here.

Joe Absolom, Leigh Jones, Jay Marsh and Ben Onwukwe in The Shawshank Redemption. Pic: Jack Merriman.


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