adny and red

Joe Absolom as Andy and Ben Onwukwe as Red . . . with Rita Hayworth looking on

The Shawshank Redemption

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Shawshank in book, film and play is not one for the faint hearted, it is a brutal prison drama populated by ruthless guards and predatory prisoners with a penchant for violence all led by a warden as nasty and corrupt as they come.

But depressing as it sounds, with laughs a rare commodity amid the sinister tension, it is at heart an uplifting drama, feelgood even, a tale of the power of hope and courage to overcome oppression, the little guy beating the odds.

Shawshank is the prison, the Shank, where men lose both hope and humanity, that is until former banker Andy Dufresne, played by Joe Absolom, arrives. Dufresne, prisoner 6431, is serving two life terms for murdering his wife and her lover. Despite the evidence against him stacked mountain high he maintains his innocence.

Absolom gives us a quietly defiant Dufresne who won’t bow down to The Sisters, the vicious gang of prisoners trying to enforce their own prison rules, the guards led by the brutal bully Hadley played by Joe Reisig or the corrupt Warden Stammas, played with evil contempt by Mark Heenehan.

He not only refuses to be cowed but he fights back, even battling for the prisoners, giving them the seeds of hope.

It is a hard fight though. The guards make life unpleasant, the warden makes, or more often, breaks lives at a whim, controlling everyone’s futures in a game only he wins.

But The Sisters, they are a constant threat, a prison gang enforcing their own set of rules, with gang rape their preferred method of persuasion, nothing to do with sexuality, merely a demonstration of their power and control.


Andy finds Joe Reisig's Hadley has his own way of communicating with Red looking on.

They are led by Bogs Diamond played with convincing nastiness by Leigh James with Samarge Hamilton as his willing lieutenant, Rooster - and the defiant Dufresne is a constant thorn in their side.

We feel for the innocent Dufresne but somehow he is always a distant character. He never fits into the prison routine, or even tries to, he merely adapts to live his own life within it. Even inside, he is an outsider, he doesn’t really let anyone in, and that includes the audience.

But we do connect with the real star of the show Red - Ellis ‘Red’ Redding played quite beautifully by Ben Onwukwe. Red is the prison’s goto guy. The contraband king. Whatever you want, Red can get it, at a price. He can get his hands on anything – except parole.

He’s another incarcerated for murdering his wife, except he doesn’t claim innocence, and over the years Red and Andy become not just friends, but soulmates, each other’s port in a storm.

Red is our guide, our Greek chorus, breaking the fourth wall to give us his thoughts, his take on events, his interpretation of what is happening. He not only becomes Andy’s friend, but ours as well.

We meet other characters. There is Kenneth Jay as the ancient Brooksie, the trustee and librarian who has been institutionalised beyond recovery, given a parole that is a death sentence.

Then there is the religious (sort of) Rico, played by Jules Brown, living by both the teachings of the Bible and the gospel according to D H Lawrence with pages of Lady Chatterley’s Lover stuffed down the front of his pants.

And perhaps saddest of all is Tommy the car thief, played by Coulter Dittman, with a young wife and daughter, an innocent who arrives just wanting to pass his high school exams, keep his nose clean and get parole to return to his family. He makes the fatal, really fatal, mistake of providing evidence that Dufresne could indeed be innocent. 

And as Dufresne by now is accountant and financial advisor to the warden and guards, with inside knowledge of the scams and skimming, tax evasion and sheer corruption, his innocence and release is hardly a welcome prospect. So sorry, Tommy old son, accidents do happen . . . when required.

If you haven’t read the novella or seen the film then the ending is clever, unexpected and will bring a smile of triumph to the hardest of hearts; to give you a hint, the original Stephen King novella on which it was based is Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.


Kenneth Jay's Brooksie's painful farewell after getting his unwanted parole

Gary McCann’s set is as stark as the story, utilitarian, institutional bare concrete columns with an elevated gallery patrolled by armed guards, with roll on desk, drop down back drops and scene changes that flow with the action, with an unexpected slide away reveal to give a happy ending.

It is given authenticity by Chris Davey’s lighting which mixes diffused daylight, institutional harshness and telling pools of light for dramatic moments, while Andy Graham’s sound gives us a background of jukebox melodies with timely messages.

The stage adaptation by Dave Johns and Owen O'Neill opened in Dublin in 2009 reworked for a London premiere the following year. It took 10 years to return the USA, opening in Kansas City, in 2019.

A slow burn which perhaps follows the 1994 film which had near universal critical acclaim with seven Oscar nominations and multiple awards, but a lukewarm public reception with reasons given that it was up against the likes of Forrest Gump on release, the public didn’t like prison dramas, and there was a lack of female characters. Word of mouth though made it the top video rental the following year.

The original novella was published in 1982 along with three other novellas in the collection Different Seasons. It is notable in that three of the four novellas became Hollywood films. The first was The Body which became Stand By Me (1986), while Apt Pupil (1998) followed Shawshank and starred Ian McKellen and David Schwimmer. The fourth, The Breathing Method, had a script and director and was in development when Covid hit in 2019.

Shawshank will fill you with despair but then lift you up as the human spirit triumphs, the underdogs beat the odds, the bad guys get their comeuppance, and you head off into the night with a feelgood smile on your face. In the safe hands of the experienced American director David Esbjornson, Shawshank will be on remand at the Alex to 12-11-22.

Roger Clarke


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