The Shawshank Redemption

Dave Johns and Owen O’Neill, after Stephen King
Bill Kenwright Productions
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Ben Onwukwe (Red) and Joe Absolom (Andy) Credit: Jack Merriman, Kenwright Productions
Kenneth Jay (Brooksie) cries out in desparation, facing release Credit: Jack Merriman, Kenwright Productions
Joe Absolom (Andy) faces up to Mark Heenehan (Warden) while Joe Reisig (Hadley) takes aim Credit: Jack Merriman, Kenwright Productions

The budget may be bigger, the fight scenes slicker, but great though the film version of Stephen King’s story might be, it doesn’t hit you in the gut in quite the way that this does on stage.

If redemption is still the keyword—and not through the Bible-quoting hypocrisy of prison warden Stammas nor the Jesus worship of inmate Rico—then before redemption there must come sin, and there’s plenty of that about.

"Violence and corruption are what makes every heart beat" in the Shawshank penitentiary, explains Red, serving time like many others for murder, and the play makes plain in rich language the brutality by guards and prisoners alike, including gang rape, mercifully conducted in a blackout.

The intimacy of watching the drama live also heightens the tension in what becomes a riveting battle of wills between Joe Absolom as the banker Andy Dufresne, falsely convicted of killing his wife and her lover, and Mark Heenehan as the repulsive warden, whose financial scams the former is managing.

Each seeks to control the other, Absolom unyielding, unblinking and as coldly calculating as an adding machine, Heenehan four-square, unpleasant, a hollow man exercising the power of a bully.

Between the two is Ben Onwukwe’s long-time prisoner Red who knows the ropes, and how to pull them, the go-to man to obtain cigars, French wine or a poster of Rita Hayworth. He’s been inside long enough to substitute black humour for hope of ever getting out, and to make the best of things in the meantime.

Accused of extortion for demanding ten dollars from the newly-arrived Andy to obtain a small rock hammer, he replies, "extortion is my middle name." Honesty among thieves. You cannot but like him.

In a strong cast, two other performances stand out, with Coulter Dittman as the prickly, hick Tommy, ill-educated but determined now to reform, until secret information forces him to face a terrible choice between compassion and self-interest.

Yet against the greater play of life and death, good and evil among the others, it is the fate of old lag Brooksie, the prison librarian, that I found most intensely moving, as Kenneth Jay recounts with heartfelt passion the truth about his terrible crime many decades before, then breaks down, unable to face the prospect of release into the outside world.

Joe Reisig is a steely guard Hadley, Samarge Hamilton and Jay Marsh convey just the right amount of nastiness as the sadistic ‘Sister’ predators, and Jules Brown provides an unworldly refuge in Jesus to the more practical approach of the principals.

The play, by comedians Dave Johns, best known for the title role in I, Daniel Blake, and Owen O’Neill, was based on King’s short story rather than the film. It’s tautly directed by David Esbjornson with suitably claustrophobic design and lighting by Gary McCann and Chris Davey.

I’ve always found the ending a little too pat, and wondered if the stage version might end more ambiguously, a little before the final reunion. That would not however have pleased an audience that rose to cheer and applaud an emotional piece of theatre that took it on a journey, if not to total redemption, then to deliverance.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

*Some links, including Amazon, Stageplays.com, Bookshop.org, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?