shank top

Or get busy dyin' . . . Patrick Robinson as the Shank's resident procurer of contraband, Ellis 'Red' Redding. Pictures: Mark Yeoman

The Shawshank Redemption

The New Alexandra Theatre

****

YOU can read the book, watch the film and now, see the play and it is perhaps on stage where our hero, of sorts, Andy Dufresne, has his most difficult time in the Shawshank Maximum Security Penitentiary in rural Maine.

Not that Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns have not done a good job in their stage adaptation, going back to the original 1982 Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank redemption rather than adapting the 1994 film, but it is simply much harder to depict a prison drama within the confines of a theatre.

The written word, in King’s sparse direct style, allied to the reader’s imagination makes the pages come alive, the film with its scope for massed inmates, close ups, prison grime and sinister threats along with its outside scenes, provides an avenue into gritty realism and both explore the developing relationships between the main characters over a period of 20 years.

With a cast of 12 the feelings of overcrowding, oppression and confinement, of hopelessness and underlying violence are hard to create and, on stage, the feeling of time passing, years slipping away is elusive, particularly as no one ages from first day to last. So to an extent it comes down to a black and white tale, a simplified story of goodies and baddies.

Which is not to say this is not a good prison drama, it is, and for anyone who has never seen the film, it is a very watchable production with an unexpected twist, Red and ANdybut for anyone going along to make comparisons it is always going to have a lot to live up to.

The good guys, although with all three convicted of double murders, good is a relative term in prison, are led by Andy Dufresne, a banker convicted of killing his wife and her lover, played with a quiet determination and studied lack of emotion by TV regular Ian Kelsey. He proclaims innocence, despite evidence against him, but as time progresses we find he at least has a case that he has been wrongly convicted.

Red and his friend Andy Dufresne, an innocent man wrongly serving life who refuses to give up hope

Then there is Red, played by another TV favourite, Patrick Robinson. He is a fixer, a smuggler, a man who can obtain anything, within reason and at a price. The banker and the smuggler seem an unlikely pairing but slowly they form a bond that becomes the spine of the story.

Brooksie, played by Ian Barritt, is the old lag, the trustee, who runs the library, a few books on a trolley, a man so institutionalised he will never be able to cope on the outside as we are to discover.

Leading the baddies we have the Bible thumping man of god - and mammon - prison boss, Warden Stammas, played with a sinister, slimy sneer by writer O’Neill. The Bible might be the good book but his ledger of illicit fiddles and kickbacks is even better.

Then there are the guards led by the brutal Hadley played by Joe Reisig and the prisoners who have their own hierarchy. There is the particularly vicious faction led by the nasty Bogs Diamond, played by Kevin Mathurin, with his sidekick Rooster, the obligatory prison pysycho, played by Leigh Jones, who laughs and sniggers while under the protection of hard man Bogs. They lead The Sisters, a predatory group of prisoners who specialise in gang rape to subjugate weaker inmates – except they can never get the better of Andy and even less so when he gets the protection of the strong-arm guards after helping them with valuable financial advice –advice which sees him recruited to work for the warden.

Work that seals the fate of young car thief Tommy, played by George Evans, who has information that could see Andy given an new trial or even freed – meaning Andy would no longer be Stammas’s creative accountant – and, more important, would leave with enough evidence to sink the warden.

If you know book or film you will know the plot, if not, then I won’t spoil it for you, suffice to say it is a very clever and imaginative twist.

The script has created an episodic production which might be a device in depicting the passage of time but does break up the narrative so director David Esbjornson has done a good job to keep things flowing smoothly on Gary McCann’s bleak prison set. The setting is help by lighting by Chris Davetouches such as squares of light to represent cells.

The film had more meat on its bones but the original King story is strong enough, and the cast good enough, to make this a worthwhile, standalone venture. To 03-10-15

Roger Clarke

28-09-15

And from the next cell block . . .

****

FANS of the movie which is regularly voted the nation’s number one film of all time will not be disappointed with this powerful stage version of Stephen King’s novel.

In fact, some members of the audience leaving the theatre may well have nightmares about being behind bars after a close-up of brutality experienced by inmates of the notorious Shawshank maximum security penitentiary.

Bullying by certain staff and abuse of prisoners by prisoners – even gang rape – is graphically revealed in the story focusing on banker Andy Dufresne, banged up on a double life sentence for the murder of his wife and her lover.

Ian Kelsey (BBC’s Doctors) is convincing as Dufresne who protests his innocence and, as the play progresses, there is reason to believe he could be telling the truth.

But he becomes a victim of the prison thugs and his perilous situation only improves with the help of fellow ‘con’ and fixer Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, superbly played by Patrick Robinson (BBC’s Casualty, Midsomer Murders and Strictly Come Dancing, 2013).

Excellent performances, too, from co-writer Owen O’Neill as Bible-thumping Warden Stammas, the rigid prison chief, Ian Barritt (Brooksie), Leigh Jones (Rooster) and Kevin Mathurin (Bogs Diamond).

Despite the inevitable harshness of the action there are humorous moments in the play which lift the tension at times, but the overall content means you leave the theatre with a shudder.

Directed by David Esbjornson, The Shawshank Redemption – celebrating the 21st anniversary of the famous film - runs to 03.10.15

Paul Marston

 

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