The Shawshank Redemption – Festival Theatre

Based on the Short Novel by Stephen King

Adapted by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns

Directed by David Esbjornson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A double life sentence for the brutal murders he never committed, Andy Dufresne’s proclamation of his innocence reverberates the walls of The Shawshank prison facility. While not ‘fitting in’ strictly with the way things are done around these parts, Dufresne’s intellect, and remarkable ‘cooking’ skills with finances and accounting make him the prize prisoner for the Warden. And he’ll make sure Dufresne goes nowhere. But all Dufresne wants is a quiet cell, a small rock hammer to expand his hobby collection, and a poster of Rita Hayworth. A large poster mind you.

The more cynical may see the returning production as capitalising on the 1994 film’s tremendous success. But Bill Kenwright’s touring production isn’t guilty of this, instead possessing a high level of integrity and deviating away from the cinematic adaption: adaptors Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns traverse Stephen King’s original novella to draw the story back to the unlikely friendship between Dufresne and Red, the prison’s fence fixer who serves as the story’s principal narrator.

For some, Kenwright’s stage adaptation won’t meet the criterion of the original film (with which most will be familiar). But it’s not meant to. It’s a far closer incarnation of King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, shifting remarkably well to the theatrical space – given the intensity of the subject matter, capturing the claustrophobia in the proximity of the audience as Gary McCann’s slimmed stage has a direct line to the Edinburgh crowds. Director David Esbjornson instils something these men fear whilst incarcerated at Shawshank: hope. Esbjornson comprehends the importance that performance has in such an intimate tale, a feat which lies at the feet of our two signature protagonists: Dufresne, and Red.

Red is portrayed by Ben Onwukwe as an avuncular narrator, one weary of the world but familiar with the tricks of the trade. His encounter with Dufresne unsettles his foundations, bemused by his refusal to conform to the expected manner of behaviour and hierarchy. While Joe Absolom (of Doc Martin and Eastenders fame) is far more of the reserved fellow, inquisitive but unwilling to yield unless pushed. Channelling a reserved attitude, often head-bowed and hands behind their back, Absolom makes a mightily convincing performance as a more stoic Dufresne who may appear to be keeping their head down, but it four moves ahead of everyone surrounding him.

But it’s tough to keep your head up in Shawshank anyhow, with the multiple levels of threat surrounding every cell door. From fellow inmates to the guards, it all falls under the crooked but watchful eye of Warden Stammas – who initially feels remarkably reserved, but the malice and authority which Mark Heenehan commands without grand gesticulations or antagonistic smirks strikes as the true horror – the calmness of evil, it’s perverted manipulations while housed in a smart suit and tie.

Not the sole source of depraved cruelty within the prison, as Jay Marsh’s Bog Diamond and Leigh Jones Rooster bring a genuine sense of terror in their physicality and goading nature as the ‘The Sisters’, men who use rape and extreme violence as a mark of authority. Their more vicious moments with Absolom’s Dufresne, when paired with Andy Graham’s sound design, make The Shawshank Redemption rightly an uncomfortable and visceral production in its suggestive but undeniable acts of violence.

Often promoted as a tale of extreme hope and survival, this current run of The Shawshank Redemption shifts focus to the effect of heavy incarceration upon the men, Dufresne’s innocence, Rico’s devotion to God (played by Jules Brown), Tommy’s (Coulter Dittman) family, or Red’s guilt. One of the more traumatic moments of grim reality comes from Kenneth Jay’s Brooksie, an older prisoner keen on running the library. After being granted parole, the end goal for all the boys in here, it seems the crushing truth dawns on him: the harsh reality for ex-convicts and the lack of life which exists for them once they leave their incarceration. It’s only maybe two, or three minutes, but the scene in which Brooksie demonstrates their desperation in avoiding release silences the audience as effectively as more viscerally intensive scenes.

By the end, it isn’t solely the production which claims the hearts and tears of the audience – but the story of injustice and corruption itself. The Shawshank Redemption captures humanity on this stage in all shades: from the evil, wretched and pathetic, to the broken, comedic, and yes; even hopeful. A tale as much about injustice as it is hope, benefitting from a marvellous original source, this touring production is not one to pass upon for its intense staging and solid performances.

Captures Humanity

The Shawshank Redemption runs at The Festival Theatre until April 29th. Tuesday – Saturday at 19.30pm, Thursday and Saturday matinees at 14.30pm.
Runs for two hours and ten minutes, with one interval. Tickets begin from £25.00 and may be obtained here. Suitable for Ages 12+

Photo Credit – Jack Merriman


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