The Shawshank Redemption


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s been a long journey for The Shawshank Redemption. Stephen King’s novella, first published in his Different Seasons collection in 1982 was adapted into a feature film in 1994. Nominated for a clutch of Oscars (none of which it won), the film became a slow burner and has often featured on critics’ ‘best of’ lists. This adaptation, by comedians Owen O’ Neill and Dave Johns, premiered at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in 2009, and then reappeared in Edinburgh in 2013 (where coincidentally, we saw it on one of our first forays to the Fringe). Now, in a significantly rewritten version, it lands at the Festival Theatre.

It’s the tough and relentless tale of Andy Dufresne (Jo Absolom), who – wrongly accused of murdering his wife and her lover – finds himself incarcerated in the titular prison in the 1950s. Quiet and unassuming, Andy is repeatedly bullied (and even sexually abused) by a couple of hard cases he’s obliged to share space with. But he makes one real friend in the prison, Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Ben Onwukwe), the Shawshank’s resident fixer. You need something bringing in, something that’s not officially available? Red’s the guy who can get it for you… at a price.

As the years slip inexorably by, the timescale effortlessly enforced by a series of popular songs from the period, Andy keeps his head down, doing his time and ingratiating himself with the prison’s crooked ruler, Warden Stammas (Mark Heenahan). Through it all, his Andy’s determination to escape from this hellhole never diminishes…

This is a dour and workmanlike retelling of what must rank as one of King’s bleakest stories. Gary McCann’s stark set design, coupled with David Esbjornson’s taut direction, reflects the hopelessness and depravation of prison life well enough, but the action feels somewhat dwarfed by the enormity of the Festival Theatre. This would surely have been better suited to the more intimate surroundings of The King’s but, for obvious reasons, that isn’t a possibility right now. There’s a distancing effect in that huge auditorium and I find myself wanting to be closer to the action, to feel more of the the physicality of the piece. Furthermore, I become increasingly aware of the many, quite complicated, scene changes that punctuate the proceedings and I feel unconvinced at what is revealed when that famous poster of Rita Hayworth is ripped away.

The performances are strong, though it’s the two central characters who dominate. Absalom handles the quieter, more restrained role of Andy Dufresne with ease, but its Onwukwe, as the story’s acerbic narrator, who is given more of an opportunity to shine, particularly in the second act, as events build to a stirring and optimistic conclusion. Of course, the latter was always intended to come as a startling revelation, but the tale is so well known by now, there surely can’t be a soul in the theatre who doesn’t know what’s coming in the end.

3. 5 stars

Philip Caveney

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