The Shawshank Redemption at Derby theatre
For most of us this story will be remembered as a 1990’s film, which, after a slow box office start, was reappraised, enjoying considerable belated success on video rental re-establishing it as one of the essential pieces of that decade’s movie history. Prison dramas can be a tough sell, but, its genesis as a Stephen King novella, with Bill Kenwright behind this stage adaptation, gives it an unusually strong pedigree, and in Joe Absolom a talented and recognisable lead. The opening night was sold out , a delayed start increasing the anticipation, further delayed by a minute’s silence for the late Queen Elizabeth 2nd, and an ovation for the national anthem.
The opening at curtain up is stark, three spot lit men stand naked, amongst them, Andy Dufresne, incarcerated for the double murder of his wife and her lover, a crime he claims he did not commit. The play does not shirk the grim reality of prison life including actual and threatened homosexual assault, but it is the non sexual relationship between Andy and veteran inmate Red which is at the centre of the story. Ben Onwukwe ( of London’s burning fame) is superb channelling the performance of Morgan Freeman who played the role in the film.
The ensemble, all male, cast is strong with gang members “the Sisters” providing the visceral menace from the inmates, and the warden (Mark Heenehan) providing the cerebral menace from the Prison authorities as he pressures ex banker Andy into manipulating the accounting books.
David Esbjornson’s production is gritty, Gary McCan’s set suitably austere ,and Chris Davey’s lighting monochrome with period music providing episodic breaks.
Whilst superficially the story is bleak, it is underpinned by a message of hope, friendship and love. Andy is imbued with almost Christ like qualities. Turning the other cheek, eschewing violence and securing beer for his fellow inmates in return for offering a warder financial expertise in echoes of Christ and his disciples. Adapted by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns, the dialogue is spattered with witty asides which ensure that the mood never becomes overbearingly heavy.
The second act whips along with plenty of plot twists, moments of tragedy but a satisfying ending to a pleasing production which continues on tour for the remainder of the year and plays in Derby until sat 17th. It is a credit to Derby that it continues to offer high quality plays in an era dominated by contemporary musicals, the sold out first night and strong sales for the remainder of the run vindicates that artistic confidence.