Like many people, I came across the 1994 film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Shawshank Redemption” starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman on one of its many television screenings a good number of years back now. The original cinema release had not exactly been a huge success (not a failure either), but “Shawshank Redemption” really became a cult movie on the back of later video/DVD releases and television re-showings rather than the original film release.
I was curious (if not a little apprehensive) about how life for the innocent man – Andy Dufresne played by Ian Kelsey - who was sent to Shawshank for a double murder he did not commit would transfer to the stage. “Shawshank Redemption” is a film that I like a lot, and it would not take much to make something that was nothing like the film...but how would they do it, because to me, the original film was very very dark in parts. How would they take the brutality of life in Shawshank onto a stage?
The answer to that is with great care and respect for the original source material. While obviously having to re-write the storyline a little, co-writers Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns and director David Esbjornson have done a great job of capturing on stage a little piece of prison hell while giving it enough light to let the optimism that runs through Shawshank to shine through.
Our story of course centres around Andy Dufresne and the man who can get you anything you need brought into prison for a price – Ellis “Red” Redding played by Patrick Robinson.
Both Ian Kelsey and Patrick Robinson are outstanding on stage in their respective roles and the two work very well together as their different lives up until being in prison and personalities clash a little at times. Like everyone else in the prison, Red cannot figure Andy out or start to fathom what keeps his spirit and hopes up in that dismal place.
We meet a few of the other inmates too – including the sadistic gang rapists known as The Three Sisters who see any new inmate as their prey.
This was just a perfect piece of theatre tonight with no weak links on stage. Everyone fitted their role perfectly and put in great performances, and if I pick anyone out for individual mention it is only because their parts allowed them to be more prominent. Out in front there all night were the sadistic inmates Rooster played by Leigh Jones and Bogs Diamond (Kevin Mathurin) who have stalked Andy since the very first day he arrived in Shawshank.
There is a nice performance too from Ian Barritt as Brooksie – long term model prisoner and librarian who is so institutionalised that his prison identity is now all he has and he does not want to ever leave Shawshank.
The guards of course are particularly sadistic in Shawshank and a prisoner’s comfort or even life mean absolutely nothing to them. Playing the most brutal of the guards wonderfully here is Joe Reisig as Prison Guard Hadley.
Probably the most chilling performance of the night though for me is from Owen O’Neill as Warden Stammas (also co-writer). This part is just so carefully underplayed at times to make Stammas the really frightening figure that he is (something Andy fails to see at first). Warden Stammas does not need to shout or make big physical threats. He is the absolute authority in Shawshank and the lives of every inmate are in his hands and he can change those lives on a whim. Behind his smart suit and outwardly gentle and polite appearance is a man just as corrupt and dangerous as any inmate.
There is always running through Shawshank that theme of a man’s right to be treated as a man no matter what his circumstances are and how a spirit can survive and hope can grow even in the worst of circumstances.
The story here does keep pretty close to the film that many of you reading this will know. If there was one thing I would have liked to have been here it is the scenes surrounding Andy’s first night in Shawshank as what happened there set the scene for the rest of the film about the utter valueless of an inmate’s life in Shawshank to the guards and prisoners, but we skip over that as after Andy’s initial entry into prison we jump forward some fourteen months.
Having said that though, we soon catch up with the horrors of Shawshank. What this stage adaptation also does that film really cannot do is what all really good stage productions can, and that is pull you right into the lives of the characters. They are not small people on some screen, but thee dimensional real life people right in front of you.
Also enhancing everything here too is very good set design and lighting by Gary McCann and Chris Davey. There are also some very specific to the story line little excerpts from some songs throughout.
I actually think Shawshank Redemption the play could replace Shawshank Redemption the film for me.
Review by Tom King