The Shawshank Redemption at the Everyman, Cheltenham

The Shawshank Redemption - Ian Kelsey and the cast of The Shawshank Redemption Slider - Photo credit Mark Yeoman

There has been a trend in the past few years to present stage versions of well-known shows from our screens. In recent years we have had Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son and even Columbo. These are often no more than cynical moves on the part of producers to cash in on an existing and successful title. This strategy also has the advantage that nobody has to be creative or innovative. I can’t see the point of trying to copy a successful show – you are never going to be as good as the original and therefore are bound to disappoint your audience. Never a good policy.

The Shawshank Redemption, since its release over twenty years ago, consistently appears near the top of lists of best/favourite films. How are you ever going to match that on stage? How are your actors going to come close to matching the performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman? Well, firstly you go back to basics. You don’t try to recreate the film, you go back to the book and start from scratch.

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption , to give it its full and original title, wasn’t even a book, it was a short story in a 1982 collection. Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns have brilliantly distilled the essence of the story and concentrated it into one claustrophobic multi-purpose set.

Prison dramas, are rather like war (especially WW1) or courtroom plays (O’Neill and Johns appeared together in Twelve Angry Men). They are about groups of men forced into existences and situations they have not chosen, with no immediate means of escape. The situations have built-in drama and tension. The worst aspects of human nature, or at least those demonstrated by men, are always near the surface, but so are the best.

The Shawshank Redemption presents us with two very sympathetic characters, Andy Dufresne, wrongfully, he claims, serving a sentence for double murder and Red, an easy going old-lag and prison fixer. It is the relationship between these two men that is the kernel, the heart of the story. Ian Kelsey as Dufresne and Patrick Robinson as Red are both brilliantly cast and have us rooting for them from the very beginning.

We all know the Shawshank story and we all know the ending so why would we want to go to a theatre to see it? Well, see it you should because you will see it with fresh eyes and the fact that you know what will happen almost wills on the participants. We know that no matter how bad the situation gets there is always redemption waiting on a beach in Mexico.

As with all Bill Kenwright productions, visually it is stunning. The towering, box-like confines of the set by Gary McCann and atmospheric lighting by Chris Davey immediately transport us to the grim environment that is an American prison. My only issue with the production is that the passage of time was not marked. The story takes place over a period of twenty years but apart from one passing reference to the library having been in existence for eight years we had no way of knowing where we were. Indicating the passing of time is important, crucial even to the events demonstrating the patience and fortitude that are necessary to survive. That’s the problem, I don’t know what the solution is apart from somebody occasionally saying, “Well, that’s another five years gone” or a girl in fishnet tights and a sequined leotard marching across the stage with a placard.

The rest of the, obviously, all-male cast were excellent. Special mention is due to Ian Barritt as Brooksie, the old-timer who runs the prison library and who, after nearly fifty years inside, cannot cope with the prospect of release. Also outstanding was writer Owen O’Neill who appeared as the weasely, whiney warden who, had he been appearing in the pantomime in a few weeks’ time would have had us hissing uncontrollably.

If you are one of the half-dozen or so people in the civilised world who do not know The Shawshank Redemption then I recommend you take this opportunity to discover it. If you are, like the rest of us, already a fan, you will not be disappointed.    ★★★★☆     Michael Hasted     3rd November 2015