THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION at the Cambridge Arts Theatre
“a stage production of such a well-known and iconic film is a brave thing to undertake”
To present such an opening impression of the Shawshank Maximum Security Penitentiary is an impressive undertaking for a touring production (Designer Gary McCann). The walls are built high on two levels with a gantry across the top upon which a uniformed guard paces, rifle in hand. Painted an institutional two-tone green, it is grubby and depressing. Extra set is flown in to move the action into Andy’s cell, the library, or the Governor’s office but otherwise the central open space acts for all other areas within the prison. Stark lighting (Designer Chris Davey) provides a foreboding mood but particularly in the early scenes actors are too often caught out of position and are lost into shadow. The echoing effects of metallic doors clanging far away increases the sallow mood (Designer Andy Graham).
Short snappy scenes are efficiently set – pulling on a cell bed, dragging away tables – with noise and commotion provided by the ensemble of prisoners who freeze to allow our attention to focus on the main action. Despite the inclusion of three understudies in this performance, the movement of the ensemble is slick (Director David Esbjornson).
Just as the character Red provides a voice-over in the film, so here he (Ben Onwukwe) narrates the story direct to the audience. Onwukwe has a magnetic presence and his empathy is engaging as he guides us through his friendship with the convicted double-murderer Andy Dufresne (Joe Absolom) and their life-long prison journeys. The two actors work comfortably with each other and their tender feeling contrasts with the general coldness and detachment of the rest of prison life. Absolom’s tenor voice and staccato delivery stands him apart from the rest. He broods around the edges of the stage, gazing downwards, and whilst his dialogue of never more than a few words at a time emphasises his character’s reticence it doesn’t help us to understand the man behind the silence either.
Despite the importance of the two central characters, the most successful scenes concern the full ensemble of prisoners. Dressed in identical prison uniform of brown boots and denim jeans they resemble a motley chorus line. Leigh Jones as Rooster gives a magnificent performance despite some inconsistency in his character’s violent demeanour, with his affected maniacal laughter and aggressive posture genuinely threatening. Kenneth Jay as old-timer librarian Brooksie provides a most moving performance in his reluctance to accept his parole. Coulter Dittman is given little opportunity to develop car-thief Tommy Williams but grasps excellently with what he has. And on the other side of the bars, the gravelled bass of Mark Heenehan as corrupt Governor Warden Stammas is consistently strong, exuding the authority of his position and his abuse of it.
Ultimately though, a stage production of such a well-known and iconic film is a brave thing to undertake, although we are clearly informed that the starting point is Stephen King’s original novella, not the film. The adaptation (by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns) forgoes much of the detail – we don’t see just how clever Andy is being nor just how corrupt the Governor is – and with the limitations of a stage we don’t see the full grimness of prison life nor either the beauty or the pain of an escape from it. Despite the best of intentions and this most worthy ensemble cast, the play can only serve as a reminder of how good the film is.
Reviewed on 13th March 2023
by Phillip Money
Photography by Jack Merriman
Previously reviewed at this venue: