The Shawshank Redemption, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Reviewer: Tom Ralphs

Writer: Stephen King
Adaptation: Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns
Director: David Esbjornson

Ten years ago Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns brought their adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption to Edinburgh Fringe, and now a rewritten version of it has arrived at Festival Theatre for a week long run as part of a national tour.

The story focuses on Andy Dufrense (Joe Absolom) a banker who has been convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. Dufrense maintains his innocence but his pleas fall on deaf ears at best and at worst help to make his time in the maximum security penitentiary harder than it might otherwise have been.
Much of the short first act is spent setting up the story and the main characters of Andy, Prison fixer Red (Ben Onwukwe) and the possibly corrupt Prison Warden Stammas (Mark Heenehan). Red, who also narrates parts of the story, befriends Andy cautioning against standing up for himself too much against prison hard man Bogs Diamond (Jay Marsh) and his cohort. Needless to say, Andy is perhaps too stubborn or principled to follow this advice and takes his punishment to preserve his pride even as it destroys it. His intelligence and knowledge of the law and finance provide his salvation, making him useful to Stammas and in the process enabling him to get perks for his fellow inmates and a job in the prison library.
There’s a lot going on, but the large cast and numerous quick scene changes mean there is little scope for any real depth to emerge. It is laying down markers for the story that will emerge, but the style of delivery with lines split between ensemble characters is maybe more suited to a musical than a drama. While Absolom is able to show the complex nature of Andy as he tries to fit in and adapt to surroundings he feels he should never have been placed in, other characters are scripted as stereotypes or merely used to deliver information, which limits the scope for strong individual performances to emerge.
It isn’t until the much longer, more substantial second act that the story and the production really starts to take flight as the arrival of Tommy Williams (Coulter Dittman), links to the revelations that could help Andy to prove his innocence, as well as adding extra conflict and layers of tension to the relationship between Andy and Stammas. The cast all get the chance to get beyond the basic narrative driving the story and into the personalities and life histories that lie behind it.
Kenneth Jay as Brooksie, the long-term inmate who had previously run the prison library, stands out as someone who’s life has been defined by prison, conveying the fear and trepidation he feels at the prospect of returning to the outside world. Dittman as Tommy has a mix of naivety and ambition that makes him instantly likeable and that also allows Heenehan to bring out the darker side of Stammas as he plays him and Andy for his own advantage. Absolom’s also cleverly masks Andy’s motives in his dealings with Stammas, and Onwukwe works well as a friend and foil to him as Andy and Red’s ties strengthen and they share more of themselves with each other.
David Esbjornson’s direction works well to keep audiences interests as the plot unfolds. Because it is so gripping, the major plot twist when it arrives feels like it is short changing us by cutting short other story strands at the expense of delivering the surprise, even if it will be expected by people who have seen the film or read the book. However, the final ending rounds off the story and gives a conclusion it, and Andy and Red, both deserve.
Overall, it’s a play of two halves, where the second half is definitely the one to see.
Runs until 29 April 2023 then touring | Image: Jack Merriman
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The Reviews Hub - Scotland

The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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