The Shawshank Redemption

Adapted by Owen O'Neill and Dave Johns, based on the short novel by Stephen King
Bill Kenwright
Cambridge Arts Theatre

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Ben Onwukwe as Red and Joe Absolom as Andy Dufresne Credit: Jack Merriman
Mark Heenehan as Warden Stammas and Joe Absolom as Andy Dufresne Credit: Jack Merriman
Joe Absolom, Leigh Jones, Jay Marsh Credit: Jack Merriman

How do you approach a theatrical version of such an iconic film? This is the conundrum faced by comedians Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns. Their answer is to take the original Steven King short story, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and base their script on this as their primary source.

This, it turns out, is a really wise choice. We aren’t faced with trying to pitch the live actor against Red’s rich and deep Morgan Freeman voice, nor are we met with the everlasting image of Andy Dufresne looking up to the sky to bask in his rain-sodden freedom. This is the same story, but told in a way that allows us to become intimately acquainted with the characters in a way that differs from the screen version.

Ben Onwukwe as Red is every bit as magnetic and likable as Freeman. His narration to the audience is delivered with a beautiful pace, almost drawing us in, but filling the gaps in the story without losing the imagery of what is being described. This is a more scheming, street-smart version of the role and never loses connection with the audience.

There is something different too in Joe Absolom interpreting Andy Dufresne. His is a neuro-divergent character, obsessed by detail and a little nervy, avoiding eye contact and moving across the stage with apprehension. The character created is not as likable as the Dufresne we already know and we aren’t rooting for him to escape in the same way. However, there is more depth to the role and he has found another dimension to his character. There is a vulnerability in this personality, typified by the opening image of his standing exposed to the elements as he is introduced to his new home.

For me, the whole triumph of the evening is the supporting cast. Jules Brown steps up as a convincingly menacing understudy for Hadley, aggressive and full of vitriol. His turn as the villain is only outdone by Mark Heenehan’s super turn as Warden Stammas. Heenehan perfects a brilliant steely glare and often says very little to get his point across. He epitomises what it means to be uptight and creates a character who was very dislikable. Kenneth Jay as the elderly librarian Brookside is convincing and kindly, which is in contrast to Jay Marsh’s predatory Bogs Diamond. Equally squalid is the annoying Rooster, acted with super commitment by Leigh Jones, whilst Coulter Dittman makes a terrific professional stage debut as the big-hearted Tommy Williams.

Whilst the ensemble are strong, the design is just as impressive. Gary McCann creates an oppressive, mundane space, only making the escape backdrop even more warm and inviting. The world of the prison and the setting is further helped along the way by Andy Graham’s sound design, with Dylan and Cash numbers echoing down the empty Shawshank corridors.

So, to come full circle, what of this question of film versus theatre? Well, the story is essentially the same (no spoilers) and therefore the characters are those that we first met in the 1994 film. My theatre-going companion, who had never seen the original cinematic version, was still familiar with some of the key moments having seen it cross-referenced in other media. It is fair to say that those who loved the wonderful, hopeful story will not be disappointed by this production but may be introduced to another perspective on the Shawshank penitentiary.

Reviewer: John Johnson