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The Shawshank Redemption

Adapted by Owen O'Neill and Dave Johns from the novella by Stephen King
Bill Kenwright
Sheffield Lyceum Theatre

Oliver Stoney and Paul Nicholls Credit: Mark Yeoman

The Shawshank Redemption is likely to be familiar to audiences from Stephen King’s novella or the highly successful and popular 1994 movie starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman which is frequently aired on TV. So what can a stage version offer that isn’t covered more than adequately in the film?

The narrative structure is impressive and full of incident. It reveals what we know from other sources about the brutality of prison life, US or UK, where this year more than 100 people have killed themselves in British prisons.

In King’s novella, lawyer Andy Dufresne has been imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover. Everyone in the prison is ‘innocent’ until the real stories are revealed, but in Andy’s case this is true.

The narrative takes us through his experience of homosexual rape and his determination to go on resisting it, his survival mechanisms in developing a prison library, providing tax avoidance for the prison guards and the brutal prison governor and friendship with a fellow lifer who provides him with a rock-hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth. Dufresne does not give up hope and his projects are long-term.

Gary McCann’s set is an impressive realisation of the gloomy interior of the prison and adapts to suggest smaller areas, but the cavernous space, though adaptable, isn’t sufficiently delimited to suggest the dark secret corners where acts of brutality can take place.

For most of the inmates, long sentences have to be grimly endured and there is little to remind them of their essential humanity or to give them hope. Halfway through the first half, there a crucial scene in which a gang of prisoners is out in the sun re-tarring the prison roof on a fine day. Putting himself at risk, Andy’s negotiates a rest and beer all round so for 20 minutes the prisoners are able to remember what it was like to be free. At this point, the set is too massive, dark and constraining to suggest the outer air and the sky above.

Paul Nicholls is outstanding as Andy. He performs with a light touch and makes the character completely believable. Jack Ellis is menacingly brutal and manipulative as the Warden, not quite as vile as Bob Gunton in the film but still chillingly convincing. Ben Onwuke has the difficult task of bringing something different to Morgan Freeman’s brilliant, almost Zen-like film performance as Red. A Nicholas Banks as Tommy is an irrepressibly cheerful character who has hope for the future and much to live for.

In the second half, two crucial events lack impact, each of which is suggested with significant economy in the film. The first is the sad revelation of Banksie’s death, which is signalled by the close-up on a noose; and the other the shot that kills Tommy. In the stage version, he is dragged off stage. In the film, we see the lurking warder who carries out the death sentence. In each case, the audience is left to draw its own conclusions.

While a stage performance always has more immediacy than a movie, it also lacks the variety that can be achieved with different camera angles and close-ups and a range of realistic settings. In this case, the solid prison structure is a constant reminder of what incarceration means but the small group scenes seem a long way away from the audience, and it is not until the end that a startling transformation is achieved.

This is a production with excellent acting performances from all members of the cast and very effective musical links which suggest the passing of time. It is a powerful tale for our time.

Reviewer: Velda Harris