I can only assume that there were high expectations in the audience tonight from anybody who has seen the superb Academy Award nominated film of The Shawshank Redemption, itself an adaption of the 1982 novella by Stephen King. I can also assume that those people would not have been disappointed by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns’ gritty and powerful adaptation for the stage which was executed near flawlessly tonight by its exceptional cast. The play met with mixed reviews back in 2009 but this new touring production serves up the themes of status, hope, anxiety and friendship with a sophisticated and assured style which pays homage to the film, but also invites a new audience into the twists and turns of this exciting prison thriller.
Our narrator through the story is Ben Onwukwe who plays Ellis “Red” Redding with sincerity and grit, stepping out from the shadow of Morgan Freeman to give us a charismatic and gutsy interpretation of the role, whose wit and charm is often needed as a relief to the tension of the unravelling narrative. It is he who introduces us to the story of wrongly imprisoned Andy Dufresne who, whilst serving time for double murder, slowly climbs the ladder of prison hierarchy. Dufresne is played superbly by Paul Nicholls who presents a resilient and eloquent character whose self-assurance is never arrogant and can be seen taking all that his new life in prison throws at him with, on the most part, composure and patience. Dufresne must adapt to prison life with the threat of gang rape from “the sisters” and learn who he can trust under the watchful eye of Warden Stammas, again played perfectly by Jack Ellis.
It is in the much darker moments of violence and desperation that this production is perhaps at its best, capturing a power through the quiet tension, underscored subtly by the music and sound effects throughout. The lighting is used expertly to create a claustrophobia even on this large stage, contrasting exterior and interior locations and highlighting moments for the audience without over egging it. The staging is simple and effective, with larger set pieces flying in and others moved carefully by the cast, often under well chosen music of the time, which reflects on the mood and characters. In fact at times, under the direction of David Esbjornson, the cast move as though part of a giant game of chess as the scenes are so well crafted, with careful positioning of all players.
All in all this production delivers on all levels. It is flawlessly directed and expertly performed by this strong cast and whilst it should satisfy fans of the film it surely will capture the hearts and minds of a new audience too.
Reviewed by Ashley Price
Reviewed on 29 November 2016.
North West End Rating: ★★★★