Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Shawshank is sublime in touring production

THE Theatre Royal was packed to the rafters and you could feel the anticipation in the air as we settled into watching this timeless tale of a miscarriage of justice.

The Shawshank Redemption,
Theatre Royal, Windsor
Wednesday, August 31

THE Theatre Royal was packed to the rafters and you could feel the anticipation in the air as we settled into watching this timeless tale of a miscarriage of justice.

Originally a short prison novel by horror-meister Stephen King and brought to the silver screen by Frank Darabont, the resulting movie was something of a slow-burner, gradually gaining a reputation as a must-see.

It was with this high benchmark in mind and as devotees of the film that we approached the show — an adaptation of the novel by Dave Johns and Owen O’Neill.

To my delight, this was a remarkable production — both a successful homage to the book and the film classic, and a powerful reinterpretation for the stage.

It’s Forties Maine and banker Andy Dufresne arrives at Shawshank Penitentiary already notorious for allegedly having killed his wife and her golf pro lover in cold blood.

He soon makes the acquaintance of Ellis “Red” Redding, a veteran of many years’ incarceration and thus the eyes and ears of the prison, and a man who knows how to get things.

Narrator Red, in a voice that is at once weary, wary and wise, observes this newcomer and hears him express his innocence — but of course that’s pretty much everyone’s stance in the joint.

On top of this a corrupt warden (Jack Ellis) keen on quoting the Bible and eliminating mendacity — something he is plainly partial to himself — oversees the men and hypocritically makes sure that no one is taking advantage.

As Andy shows his fortitude, honour and quiet determination to make the best of the worst situation, the motley crew of prisoners gradually realise that he truly is an altruist — although when he asks Red if he can get him a rock hammer this doesn’t do much to change their view of him as a cold-blooded killer.

In one example he uses his financial knowledge to secure some beers for the men working outdoors in a heatwave, but does without a beer for himself.

Later, things take a turn when Andy is presented with a potential opportunity — a shot at proving his innocence.

Former EastEnder Paul Nicholls portrayed Andy wonderfully and Ben Onwukwe shone throughout as Red.

Each of the actors in this piece brought their own twist — from the sinister Sisters, to the religious, the bookish and the just plain mischievous — while we had incredibly moving insights into their pain, misery and regret.

However, there were also upbeat and uplifting moments, including Andy relating to Red his mantra, which is helping him get through each day in the clink, that you have to “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’ ”.

Of course, given the harsh setting, there was plenty of horror in the form of gang rape, beatings, violence, cussing, you name it — all adding to the sense of remarkable strength in Andy while simultaneously feeling like an authentic recreation of jail.

I was impressed by the creation of Shawshank on stage, with the clangs and buzzes serving to jolt both us and the prisoners, alongside the swift scene changes from warden’s office to reading area to canteen to Andy’s cell.

There were snippets of contemporary music segueing between the little vignettes and scenes and it was all perfectly placed (I now have the amazing song Sixteen Tons lodged in my brain).

Without wishing to spoil the intricate details of what is a beautiful, moving, poignant and tragic tale, this production seemed to capture and distil the most powerful and critical elements of the much-loved film, where each part is a vital ingredient leading up to the denouement.

The show built up to its climactic and joyous ending, with many satisfying outcomes where justice is served.

The scenes with Red trying to secure his parole in varying manners were wonderful. In a nice touch, we see Andy sitting on his prison bunk next to his cherished poster of Rita Hayworth while refusing the Raquel Welch poster Red has offered up — an excellent in-joke much appreciated by the audience.

I’m now determined to watch the film again and actually read King’s original story. This was just sublime.

The Shawshank Redemption is currently on tour. It is playing at the New Theatre, Oxford, from Monday, November 7, to Saturday, November 12.

Natalie Aldred

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