The Shawshank Redemption
10th October 2022
‘The Shawshank Redemption’ captured the world’s heart when the acclaimed film adaptation hit cinema screens back in 1994. Adapted from Stephen King’s 1982 novella ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’, the exploration of hope in the harshest of environments became one of the most successful hits of the year, although it famously lost out to ‘Forrest Gump’ for many of the year’s big awards. The harsh, oppressive prison setting and range of flawed characters made the property ideal for stage adaptation, and after a previous production in 2015, the play is back on UK stages, running at Leicester’s Curve this week.
Imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover, banker Andy Dufresne (Joe Absolom) is sentenced to two life terms at Shawshank Penitentiary. Protesting his innocence, Dufresne tries to keep to himself to survive the experience, but faces brutality at the hands of other prisoners and guards alike. He strikes up a conversation with “lifer” Red (Ben Onwukwe), which turns into a friendship that spans decades as the inmates endure life at Shawshank. A hellhole prison for most, and a safe sanctuary for others, Shawshank begins to test the strength of their resolve, and asks what they will do to survive.
Adapted for the stage by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns, this production certainly captures the dank grimness of King’s subject, but doesn’t quite bring the uplifting hope to offset it. Director David Esbjornson ensures that the more adult themes are delicately handled, being referenced rather than indulged, which helps to keep the piece accessible. Gary McCann’s set design is effectively cold and harsh, with the Shawshank prison backdrop almost feeling like an ominous looming character in its own right. Although there is some light relief provided by Onwukwe’s Red and also Jules Brown as Rico, the play is a prisoner itself of its own dour seriousness and locked in its dry setting, which can feel a slog to watch at times. Where the visuals succeed, the texture of the writing doesn’t always match it. King’s story is there but the heart isn’t; the script lacks King’s earthy poetry when it comes to dialogue and character motivation, and the piece doesn’t ignite as it should. The key moments are delivered efficiently, with Kenneth Jay’s Brooksie in particular tugging at the heartstrings, but overall the play doesn’t land the emotional punches in the way that previous iterations have done.
There are pacing issues as the piece plays out, hindered by the second act being already longer then the first, giving a somewhat sedate viewing experience, and a bit of clock-watching from the audience right when the narrative should be reaching its peak. Ironically, although the play takes its time in reaching its famous final stretch, the conclusion feels rushed, hurrying through Red’s exposition of Dufresne’s outcome and robbing it of some of its triumph. King’s writing helped the audience understand the intricacy of how Dufresne came up with his secret plan, and how the associated risks were calculated, but much of this is lost on stage and makes what happens feel a little too easy.
Performances are strong across the board, with a likeable all-male cast giving believable portrayals of prisoners at various points in their journeys. Absolom and Onwukwe make a winning leading pair, both giving engaging portrayals of these very different men, and they have a strong chemistry in their scenes together. Both actors also wisely avoid copying their onscreen predecessors, instead making the characters their own. Kenneth Jay is also excellent as Brooksie, bringing real heart to the imprisoned librarian who struggles to cope with the outside world once he’s granted parole.
Bringing such a well-loved film to the stage is always tricky, and although ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ offers mixed results, it’s still worth your time. A reminder of the strength of the human spirit against adversity, some likeable performance bring King’s tale to life in an uneven but ultimately worthwhile experience.
‘The Shawshank Redemption’ runs at Leicester’s Curve until Saturday 15th October 2022, before continuing on its UK tour.