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DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Shawshank Redemption – Theatre Royal Newcastle

Reviewer: Jonathan Cash

Writer: Stephen King

Adaptors: Dave Johns and Owen O’Neill

Director: David Esbjornson

The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most iconic and enduring films of 1990s. It was adapted from one of Stephen King’s short stories, which in turn was inspired by a Tolstoy short story from 1872. The performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are justly treasured but this production shows that the material stands up perfectly well without Hollywood star power, in the hands of an accomplished cast of seasoned actors.

The plot concerns Andy Dufresne, a financier, wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, and his ways of surviving over 19 years in the brutal Shawshank Penitentiary. His one ally is “Red” Redding, the prison fixer, who takes a liking to this quiet, self-contained resilient man and tries to help him find his way through the hazards that surround him. These include a pair of violent homosexual rapists known as “the sisters”, the corrupt and sanctimonious governor and one particularly cruel guard.

Using his financial expertise, Andy manages to ally with the warden and the most vicious of the guards, helping the warden with his illegal money-making schemes exploiting prison labour. Through his efforts he manages to obtain a well-stocked library for the inmates and to protect himself against further attack for some years. However, the warden’s vicious response to his attempt to prove his innocence leads him to withdraw his cooperation and find a way to bring down the corrupt system, whilst finding the titular redemption for himself and salvation of a sort for “Red”.

The play marks the passage of time effectively, using cleverly-chosen popular songs. It is necessarily a slow burner, since it covers such a long timeframe, but it never fails to hold the audience’s attention. The script is taut and convincing, with just enough humour to lighten the tension and believable dialogue that lets the characters develop in three dimensions as the play progresses. At times, the fight sequences seemed a little less than convincing, though perhaps they were meant to be stylised, rather than realistic.

All the subsidiary characters are well-drawn, from Mark Heenehan’s pompous and venal warden and Joe Reisig’s brutish guard to the array of fellow inmates, notably Jay Marsh and Leigh Jones’ “Sisters”. The prisoners make a strong, believable ensemble of individuals. Jules Brown’s Rico brings some lighter moments and Coulter Dittman’s Tommy Williams is likeable as a naïve but gutsy youngster.

Ben Onkukwe, as “Red”, who serves also as a narrator, holds the piece together. Instantly engaging, avuncular and humorous, he gives a tour-de-force performance of many facets. Joe Absolom’s enigmatic Andy is a worthy match for him. His performance is tight, buttoned-down and spare.  He has an almost mystical quality and paces the revelation of his character precisely to the progress of the play. This makes the most of the long timeframe and keeps the audience gripped to the, very satisfying, conclusion. It would be hard to imagine the two roles being better played.

Gary McCann’s set design is powerful and appropriately claustrophobic, but flexible. Chris Davey’s lighting design is effective and Andy Graham’s sound design, with an unobtrusive but highly atmospheric soundscape, underpins the mood throughout.

The play is believably gritty and harsh without dwelling unduly on violence. The second act seems to move faster than the first, presumably because of the weight of exposition needed. However, director David Esbjornson has delivered a highly effective and ultimately uplifting piece of theatre; strongly acted, intelligently staged and always absorbing. The audience is happy to serve time with these fascinating characters.

Runs until 21 January 2023, before continuing on tour.

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Gripping Prison Drama

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. 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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One Comment

  1. Disappointed with level of sound although the sound seemed to improve for 2nd part.The Theatre Royal wasn’t very comfortable on a cold night as it felt fairly cold and a lot of the audience had coats on and even seen some wearing gloves

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