The Shawshank Redemption – Orchard Theatre, Dartford

Reviewer: Dan English

Based on the short novel by Stephen King

Adaptors: Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns

Director: David Esbjornson

Joe Absolom gives a stunning performance as Andy Dufresne in this superb, and hard-hitting, stage adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, as The Shawshank Redemption reaches Dartford as part of its UK Tour.

The production is a stage adaptation of King’s novel Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and draws closely from the source material though most will recognise events not from the book but from the hit 1994 film version. It is a story which follows Dufresne as he battles with adapting to life in the brutal Shawshank Penitentiary while maintaining his innocence and navigating tricky relationships with both his fellow cellmates and the corrupt wardens.

In short, Absolom is excellent in the leading role. Absolom allows Dufresne to quietly grow with subtle gestures and tweaks of the voice enabling us to understand the different pains and defiances of his character. Absolom, with aplomb, allows us to see Dufresne at his best and at his worst and is a joy in this role, certainly more than holding up to previous iterations. Dufresne’s warm relationship with Red is contrasted to that with the horrendously cruel Bogs. Absolom swings through these different emotions successfully to fully enable us to understand his character. It is through Absolom that we see life in prison at its worst, with some scenes, which include some of the worst violence imaginable, almost too horrifying to watch. But Absolom works hard to ensure that the piece, much like Dufresne’s character, does not crack.

Alongside Absolom is Ben Onwukwe, who plays Ellis ‘Red’ Redding. Red is a fixer in prison, who brags that he can get things for his fellow cellmates, which pushes him into a position of respectability in this society, Like Absolom, Onwukwe is also fantastic in this role, which straddles being a direct character as well as a narrator as Red is used as a device to help us understand the complexities and realities of prison life. Although the plot centres around Dufresne, it is Red’s character who perhaps is the most interesting, as his hope for freedom, and life after prison, is restored thanks to Andy’s positivity, and it is genuinely heart-warming to see the confidence and self-esteem return culminating in a genuinely very beautiful final scene.

The prison is governed by the incredibly cruel, and corrupt, Warden Stammas (Mark Heenehan) and his cronies which include the brutal guard Hadley (Joe Reisig). These provide further cruelty and villainy in an already brutal environment, and at times do risk become slightly cartoonish in their portrayal, but ultimately are loathsome enough that their downfall is longed for, especially following a horrific sequence of events in Act 2 as the piece reaches its climax.

While this is a production which certainly more than holds its own against its predecessors, it certainly does have some limitations, particularly in the way the story unfolds. One of the slightly jarring issues is the rapidly and, at times, awkward, scene changes which risk pulling you out of the piece. It is here where the story’s obvious suitability as a film, rather than a play, is perhaps its clearest.

The Shawshank Redemption is an impressive feat of theatre. This feels more like a cinematic experience than just a simple stage play, and this is absolutely testament to the impressive cast and creative team who have put this together. Fans of the film, or the book, will definitely enjoy this production, with its central, heart-warming, message of triumphing over adversity, a rally cry that feels particularly pertinent today.

Runs until 15 April 2023, then continues to tour

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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