The Shawshank Redemption
Ben Onwukwe (Red) and Joe Absolom (Andy Dufresne)
Based on the short novel by Stephen King, adapted by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns
The omens certainly didn’t look good: a 20-minute delay on press night of the second week of the tour, with the audience crammed in the bar and up the stairs waiting for the auditorium doors to open. A sound problem delayed the start of The Shawshank Redemption and even when the show got underway there was feedback for the first few minutes which threatened to derail the production.
But the 12-man ensemble came together admirably to stage a memorable show on a packed Monday evening which resulted in a standing ovation.
The Shawshank Redemption started off as a Stephen King novella before becoming a film that was nominated for seven Academy awards. Now Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns have adapted it for the stage – and what a tremendous job they’ve done. They depict the brutality of life inside yet there is always optimism for the future.
The plot features a bank manager, Andy Dufresne, being wrongly convicted of killing his wife and her lover. He’s sent to prison for life and ends up in the notorious Shawshank jail. As part of his quest to make incarceration less onerous, he writes a huge number of letters to the Senate trying to get funding for books to set up a proper library.
The cast of The Shawshank Redemption is led by Ben Onwukwe as the fixer Red who is able to secure anything for his fellow inmates, including French wine, Belgian chocolates and marijuana – for a price.
Onwukwe is a commanding presence. Your attention is drawn to him whenever he is on stage and he gives a remarkable performance, earning empathy from the audience for his unique way of standing up to authority without resorting to violence, as some of the other prisoners do.
He cleverly defuses potentially inflammatory situations and Onwukwe shows that Red has a tender side to him as he is both startled and staggered when Dufresne offers him a present and wants nothing in return.
Joe Absolom who has been a regular on television for a number of years is undertaking his first theatre tour. He gives a well-judged performance as Andy Dufresne who is in a different social class from the other prisoners. Absolom transforms from an insular prison newcomer into an assertive, unflappable leader who recognises the value of his financial skills.
There is another metamorphosis from Mark Heenehan who as Warden Stammas starts off as the ideal disciplinarian to run a prison but skilfully develops into a manipulative, exploitative figure who uses his position for selfish purposes.
Kenneth Jay has everyone on the edge of shedding tears with his portrayal of Brooksie the librarian who threatens to set fire to himself on being granted parole. You feel for him as he laments not being able to get a library card once he is freed from jail.
The whole ensemble give excellent performances, leaving you with no illusions about how tough, violent, sadistic and dehumanising prison life can be. It’s slickly pulled together by directors David Esbjornson and Tim Welton, with the action slacking off only for a very short spell in the second half.
The Shawshank Redemption is visiting only nine venues on its tour. It would be criminal to miss it.
* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website