The Shawshank Redemption

Derby Theatre


THE act of redemption is described as the action of regaining or gaining possession of something.

Considering the huge legacy of the Oscar winning film Shawshank, redeeming it for a stage adaption might have appeared an impossible task for Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns who adapted the original Steven King novella back in 2009.

The film version built upon the strong foundation of the original, turning it into a timeless and well-crafted work. Bringing this story to the stage needed the same open mind in making it work for a different medium. Whilst the movie has a greater scope for detail the stage adaption, even after a complete rewrite in 2013, still follows the film version but makes no attempt to redesign the delivery of important plot points that made the film so successful.

The key thing missing is a sense of time. The story focuseson a former banker, Andy Dufresne, serving a double life sentence for the murder of his wife and her lover. Whilst protesting his innocence, he forms a friendship with fellow inmate Red who helps him adjust to the trauma of prison life.

Andy’s accounting skills are freely enlisted by the corrupt Warden Stammas and whilst working for him, Andy uses his brain to beat the brawn of the prison system. All of this takes place over many years but other than Red acting as a historical narrator, there is no sense of the slow pace and resolve of Andy’s plot to escape and his growing dedication to his lifer friend Red.

There is an attempt to include more brutality in the stage version but the effects of this seem too quickly forgotten. Even after a brutal gang rape, Andy is seen to be quite content in the next scene as if it’s all been forgotten. Likewise after a brutal beating where he is struck many times in the face, he appears minutes later looking fine with only a bandaged arm. To not make these things relevant in some way is an oversight.

The story is still a good prison tale though and in this there rnicholls and ellisemains some great things that do work .The claustrophobic setting of the Shawshank State Penitentiary is felt by the limitations of the stage and well thought out lighting manipulates the set from outdoors to indoors, and into the prison yard, then to cell spaces. Along with this are some outstanding performances.

Paul Nicholls as Andy Dufresne and Jack Ellis as Warden Stammas

Ben Onwukwe is the central figure of Red, narrator and friend to Andy. Ben has had a long stage career with roles at the RSC and the Royal Court Theatre and is no stranger to prime time TV. He does a powerful job of portraying this confident but complex character resigned to his sentence for committing triple murders

Paul Nicholls is in the pivotal role of Andy. Despite his long TV experience his portrayal of the growing desperation of an incarcerated man pleading his innocence felt a little too casual. By the second act he began to open up emotionally but throughout you never feel his increasing frustration to break out or that he is scheming in anyway. This casual approach works well in the film but needs more weight to convey it onstage.

Andy’s clever escape is hatched while in the free employ of the mean Warden Stammas. Jack Ellis takes on the role, bringing a cool blend of authority and corruption all within his penchant for quoting the bible and his misguided view of Christianity. Unfortunately we never get to see his final comeuppance, other than him discovering an empty ledger book left behind in Andy’s cell. The reveal of his downfall is left to a few lines of dialogue by the other inmates and so the twist of the payback Andy delivers that is so effective in the film, here is totally underplayed.

In addition there were strong support performances which came with Jeff Alexander as Bogs Diamond and Sean Croke as Rooster who were `The Sisters’, a brutal duo who sexually and physically terrorise the prison inmates. New inmate Tommy Williams injects a youthful burst of gutsy energy and was played by Nicholas Banks. His demise seems to be the last straw for Andy but again the opportunity to show it with any degree of passion in the context of the plot is missed.

Even so, it’s still a great tale of hope and lasting friendship and Director David Esbjornson connects the action effectively. However if you have seen and felt the impact of the film you will need to forgive the shortcomings of the stage and simply appreciate the fine storytelling and skillful performances as ultimately it fails to engage you in the same way. For anyone unfamiliar with the tale you have the benefit of it being an evening of witnessing the entertaining twists within a celebrated classic Steven King story. If you have already read the book and seen the film you may be killing time yourself, but can be justifiably content and satisfied to have now completed the trio. To 29-10-16

Jeff Grant



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