Based on Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, this gritty stage production examines desperation, injustice, friendship and hope behind the claustrophobic bars of a maximum-security facility during the second half of the 20th century.
Despite protests of his innocence, Andy Dufresne is handed a double life sentence for the brutal murder of his wife and her lover. Incarcerated at the notorious Shawshank facility, he quickly learns that no one can survive alone. Andy strikes up an unlikely friendship with the prison fixer Red, and things take a slight turn for the better. However, when Warden Stammers decides to bully Andy into subservience and exploit his talents for accountancy, a desperate plan is quietly hatched…
Most of the real horror in this piece is dealt with ‘off stage’: alluded to, talked about, winced over, we see little of the brutal treatment of the men, either from each other or from their guards. The regime is vicious, and this is explored in detail, driving both the narrative tension and also a surprisingly sweet ending for such a bleak, unremitting and depressing story line. My companion, a fan of the film, enjoyed this play although commented that some of the real prison nastiness had been erased from this telling of the story, and the gloriously planned comeuppance of the Warden and his guards was unclear and confused. His eyes, nevertheless, were wide at the naked opening of the play, and he enjoyed the sweet unfolding of the eventual ending.
Ellis ‘Red’ Redding played here in a soft, beguiling way by Ben Onwukwe, leads us through and into the actions, gently narrating the action unfolding and offering up his own take on motivations and outcomes. He’s a nice guy, in contrast to some of the horrors of toxic masculinity on show, showing compassion and care but also expressing his hard-earned wisdom from years of being on the block. His ability as a Mr Fixer, being able to supply most of the prisoners’ needs, keeps him relatively safe and allows him the ability to understand and share his insight with the audience. Leaning in to hear him, focusing on his quiet dignity, Onwukwe is quietly electrifying, his ‘rehabilitation speech’ perfect.
The story centres on Joe Absolom as new inmate Andy who is an enigmatic, guarded man, shrewdly showing his intelligence and honesty and paying the price for it behind bars where those traits are often a weakness. Andy turns to Red for guidance in ‘getting by’ and the story, backstory and deeper understanding of the hideous corruption of the Warden and his vicious murderous regime of prison guards unfolds around them. Together, using their intelligence, Andy’s proficient talent for accountancy and tax avoidance, and hard earned wisdom they play the system, and the guards to their advantage.
I’d not seen the film or read the book so rather enjoyed the story as it unfolded in front of me in the comfort of the Theatre Royal. The set, all bleak peeling paint walls, damp, dim lighting and cold heartless routine, is fascinating, the music supporting the timeless feeling of prison life, as the world moved on outside, and echoing the emotions on stage. There’s a chemistry between the main leads which is credible. The camaraderie of the incarcerated men is explored and allows us to really feel for some of the prisoners and extend our sympathy to their plights and plans, whilst keeping in mind that these are violent murderers themselves, having killed their wives and other people in their lives.
The redemption of the title is a curious idea for men who neither wish for it or appear to strive for it, remorse is certainly explored but Andy seems to be the only person (man) advocating his own innocence in this sorry tale. David Esbjornson directs this confident cast with a firm hand, although some of the American accents were prone to drift around, but by drawing out believable performances, exploring the heavy emotional impacts of cynically removed hope by power structures and the people that abuse them.
Andy’s deep compassion and ruthless revenge seem like plot devices and are never explored deeply; we never really know what is happening in his mind, but he inspires the other prisoners with the essential need for a person to find their own way, and paths to self awareness. There’s an odd feeling of it all being detached; the death of a young prisoner not having any of the emotional impact it should have, some wobbling scenery stealing the shock of the escape reveal but all in all the cast gives this complex multi-layered bro-mo story a decent enough outing.
The Shawshank Redemption is at Theatre Royal Brighton until Saturday, January 28
For more info or to buy tickets see the Theatre Royal Brighton’s website here: