The Shawshank Redemption has escaped confinement, taking refuge at The Lowry for a short stay.
Shawshank follows the story of Andy Dufresne (Joe Absolom), a young banker falsely accused of murdering his wife and her lover. Andy is incarcerated in the gloomy and corrupt Shawshank Prison, a place of confinement, corruption, brutality, and extreme cruelty.
Andy faces many setbacks on his attempts to redeem his name, concocting plans with the assistance of his friend Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Ben Onwukwe), “a man who knows how to get things”. It’s a story of friendship, injustice, prison violence, suicide, and murder, with shocking twists and emotional situations.
The play is based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which was also adapted into a film directed by Frank Darabont and starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in 1994. The show is based on the novella rather than the movie, although it is very difficult to separate the two from each other when so many lines, plot points, and concepts are drawn across novel, movie, and play.
Having only seen the movie once in my life, I felt that I was in a decent position to review the show without too much influence from previous interpretations of King’s masterpiece.
Shawshank opened to old-timey jazz song ‘Beyond the Sea’ before revealing the newcomers to Shawshank, three stripped men examined by the prison wardens, one of which being Andy, whom the prisoners of Shawshank had all read about prior to his arrival. Moments later, the audience were invited into the world of the jail, a simple but effective set with jail cells, cement columns and high-up guarding platforms that created the constant sense of observation and confinement, displaying how every aspect of the prison, whether it be the courtyard, the warden’s office, the library, or the cells felt claustrophobic.
Truly horrific moments of the story were dealt with rather sensitively, with suggestions of what was happening and narration by Red to describe the occurrences. However, I found Andy’s beatings of prisoners and wardens to look a little false at times, which contradicted the gritty and harrowing moments seen in the rest of the show.
Similarly, humour was used in serious scenes, trying to take away the impact from some of these moments with lighter humour that didn’t always hit well with me and made it difficult for me to connect with some characters despite feeling sympathy for their situations.
This was also the case with other moments as certain scenes felt a little exposition-heavy. For instance, Red’s narrative as he looks for Andy near the end had to account not only for his emotions but change in place and time, which felt a little long and disconnected as a result.
I think this is more to do with the limitations of theatre as a medium because it can be difficult to portray violence, scene changes, or escape scenes within a small space. Overhearing discussions of some audience members, I determined that there were mixed receptions to characterisations, with some individuals loving the show, and others also finding it a little difficult to connect to.
Saying this, the aftermath of the escape scene was one of the highlights of the show, with the mix of humour and confusion as the guards realise Andy has escaped and are mocked by the remaining prisoners who cheer at their friend’s rightful freedom. Another beautiful moment showed the prison wall set finally taken away as Red finds freedom, revealing Andy at a seaside destination before both embrace with excitement (with a reprise of ‘Beyond The Sea’).
The performance was brilliantly acted, with a star-studded cast who have featured in other theatre shows as well as British TV staples. Emotions were brilliantly portrayed, and the friendship between Red and Andy, whilst taking a little longer to develop, was super strong.
My favourite characters, other than the obvious Andy and Red, had to be Tommy (Coulter Dittman), an authentic character whose main goal is to pass his exams and get parole, whilst revealing evidence of Andy’s innocence. His character felt so realistic and enjoyable as I rooted for him and his naïve innocence to prevail despite the cruelty and fear that which crushes the hope of, and oppresses, the inmates of Shawshank.
Other characters I particularly liked were Brooksie (Kenneth Jay), with his love of the library and prison community, and Rico (Jules Brown), a comedic character who quotes both the Bible and pages of a raunchy book stuffed down his pants.
Overall, I felt the show was a great re-interpretation of the novella. Despite some moments where I struggled to resonate with characters or storylines, it managed to keep its own identity whilst staying true to a truly impactful story maintained by great acting and staging.