Review by Daz Gale
Adapting classic movies into plays can be a very risky business . Stephen Kings 1982 novella The Shawshank Redemption is best known for its 1994 film adaptation. While it wasn’t a huge hit on its initial release, in the decades since it has built a huge following and received consistent acclaim. Indeed, it is a favourite film of mine and one I have watched repeatedly since my first viewing when I was far too young to be watching it. I went in to this stage adaptation with a mix of excitement and trepidation – how could it compare to the film version and is it even fair to compare the two? More importantly, would this adaptation capture my attention or would it be released?
The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne as he finds himself in Shawshank Maximum Security Penitentiary for murdering his wife and her lover, though he claims he was innocent. As he has to deal with a money-laundering prison warden and all the atrocities that take place while he is in prison, there is one ray of light which is the friendship he forms with Ellis “Red” Redding. Over the course of 20 years, we are left wondering if Andy will ever be able to escape this drastic change to his life.
Stephen Kings novel is adapted for the stage by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns. They have done a worthy job of retelling the story in this new narrative, which was first staged in 2009. Though the story in itself works better with a grand style as seen in the movie, making it more intimate works in a certain respect too. Building on Red narrating events and describing things not being seen on stage is a clever touch, and it feels like not much is lost from the original, truly gripping story.
Less successful, unfortunately, is the direction from David Esbjornson which features some confusing choices which don’t always land as they should. While certain elements in the play undoubtedly work, the climactic scenes where (SPOILER ALERT – though who doesn’t know about this iconic moment?) Andys dramatic escape is revealed seems to lose the impact. Whereas the reveal should in theory make you gasp, it is played out suddenly and losing any urgency, meaning any supposed gravitas isn’t clear. Indeed, his escape is never explained properly on stage – so if you haven’t read the book or seen the film like the person I saw this play with, it might not become clear just how he managed his escape. While the limitations of the stage are understandable, perhaps a projection scene or showing some semblance of Andy being looked for would have resulted in a greater impact.
While the cast are admirable in themselves, the performances can be very uneven. Andy Dufresne is a complicated character – one which requires a lot of nuance as you determine whether he is as innocent as he portrays. Joe Absolom may be a wonderful actor himself but his characterisation of Andy fell disappointingly flat for me. His depiction of lines never quite rung true for me in a performance that lacked urgency and emotion. I struggled to connect with him in the character and was unable to get the true escapism you get watching an actor truly become the character, instead being acutely aware this was an actor playing a role.
Much more successful in his portrayal was Ben Onwukne as Ellis “Red” Redding. Following in the iconic footsteps of Morgan Freeman is a tall order but Ben does it with ease, almost emulating Morgans legendary voice. Effortlessly cool, calm and confident, Ben is utterly charismatic in a performance that demands to be seen. Full of light and shade, he gives a versatile turn that is easily the best aspect of the play.
Another highlight among the cast is Coulter Dittman, absolutely scene-stealing in the second act as Tommy Williams, while Kenneth Jay effortlessly channels the tragically complicated nature of Brooksie, melting hearts as he does. Mark Heenehan gives an accomplished performance as Warden Stammas though this lacks consistency at times, while Leigh Jones taps into the irritating nature of Rooster with a laugh that will haunt your nightmares for days after seeing the show.
Gary McCanns design does a fantastic job transforming the set into Shawshank with a great use of a platform, allowing scale to the proceedings. Andys prison cell feels a little lacklustre and could have used more detail to really make some of the scenes really come to life. Instead, due to the limited visuals, we are wholly reliant on the performance of the actors and the direction of the piece to make it all come alive, and this isn’t always delivered.
The Shawshank Redemption is a decent enough adaptation of an absolute classic. Still a completely riveting story, it is made all the more watchable by the stunning performance from several of its cast members, most notably Ben Owukne. While some other performances fall flat by comparison and the direction isn’t as slick as it should be, there is still plenty of positives to be said for this.
The stage adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption might not escape your memory immediately after watching it but it’s also unlikely to be able to spend a long sentence there either.
The Shawshank Redemption plays at Richmond Theatre until 4th February and continues its tour until April 2023. Tickets available here