Theatre Review: SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION – Winter Gardens, Blackpool


THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (previous touring cast). Photo Credit: Mark Yeoman.

Despite its strong cast performances, pacing issues spoil an otherwise impressive stage adaption of the SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

Originally a 1982 Stephen King novel, then adapted into one of the most-loved films of our lifetime, the SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION has been brought to the stage in a new adaption directed by David Esbjornson.

The SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is a tale of hope, corruption, frustration, anxiety, longing, and friendship. We follow the story and struggles of Andy Dufresne (Paul Nicholls), a banker who is serving two consecutive life sentences at Shawshank Penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover – a crime he did not commit.

The play opens with the realistic yet simple prison set on two levels, with cells at the sides, showers on the back wall and an upper tier where the guards shout orders down to the inmates. Lighting takes us from day to night and summer to winter and set changes are effortless with inmates moving tables, beds and a poster wall to transfer scenes from the cafeteria and TV room, to the solitary confinement of the prison cells. The opening sequence in which the inmates are naked (with only a bucket of belongings to cover their modesty) goes down well with the ladies in the audience and for the most part, sets the tone for the rest of the play.

Paul Nicholls plays American inmate Andy Dufresne well, delivering a performance that the audience can easily get behind. Ben Onwukwe also puts in a decent performance as Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, the joke-cracking narrator and the inmates “go-to man” for outside orders such as tobacco and Rita Hayworth posters. Onwukwe has a hard role to fill (the original character is played by the incomparable Morgan Freeman in the film) but Onwukwe makes the character his own, delivering a rougher and feistier performance than Freeman which adapts well.

The thoroughly unlikeable bullying ‘sisters’ are a booming, sinister presence on the stage, preying on the weak and delivering some of the most hauntingly memorable scenes of the film, such as the gang rape of Dufresne and his beating when he wins the game of chess.

The second half also brings us a new inmate, young Tommy Williams played by Nicholas Banks, a handsome and bolshy, yet naive individual. The car-jacker’s short journey veers rapidly between the two emotions emphasised in the play – hope and injustice – as Tommy is forced to choose between his loyalty to Andy or listening to the warped guards.

Yet despite its strong cast performances, the play lacks pace and some vital points of the story are glossed over. Disappointingly, the character of Brooksie – the librarian who gets parole but cannot cope with life on the outside – is reduced to a blubbering wreck instead of a focal character who should be admired. Andrew Boyer, who plays the character, is barely onstage and as a result the emotional connection is completely lost.

Esbjornsen’s direction also gives the play a slightly wooden feel. The smaller moments are exaggerated while the bigger ones are rushed. As a result, the action feels disconnected at times and fails to match up to the drama or intensity of the movie.

That said, the message of hope is not lost in this stage version and when the elements do come together, they come together well.

2.5 out of 5 stars

SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION runs at Winter Gardens, Blackpool until 19 November.