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The Shawshank Redemption UK Tour

I hugely enjoyed The Shawshank Redemption. This 2009 adaptation by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns is based not on the 1994 Columbia Movie but on Stephen King’s original 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Some of the secondary characters are rather two-dimensional, but only during the ‘disappearing scene’ in Act Two does one miss what Hollywood did for the story, as the play allows one to use the imagination much more, especially, as in the novella, the plot is, from time to time, narrated by one of Shawshank Penitentiary’s inmates, Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, a wonderfully rounded performance from Ben Onwukwe, instantly making the audience feel involved.

(L-R) Joe Absolom, Leigh Jones, Jay Marsh - Shawshank Redemption - UK Tour - Photo credit Jack Merriman.
(L-R) Joe Absolom, Leigh Jones, Jay Marsh – Shawshank Redemption – UK Tour – Photo credit Jack Merriman.

For those who have never seen the film or read the book, the plot concerns Andy Dufresne (a beautifully understated, calm performance from Joe Absolom – totally believable) who is sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover, despite his professions of innocence. He finds solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency. Some of the roles, such as that of Warden Stammas (Mark Heenehan) verge on the stereotypical: he is very much the ‘villain’ of the piece, but when he gets his comeuppance, as we spend much of the play hoping he will, we feel like cheering! Heenehan is perfect in this part, successfully treading a fine line between ‘authority’ and ‘downright nasty’.

Likewise, Leigh Jones as Rooster, to whom violence is second nature.

Others who impress in this twelve-strong all-male cast include Tommy Williams, a first offender and young when compared to the rest of the inmates, strongly acted by Coulter Dittman, who does not appear until Act Two, but whom we quickly get to know and empathise with. Then there is Jay Marsh as another ‘hard’ man, Bogs Diamond. It is a shame that Stephen King does not tell us more about some of these characters, but both the original book and the play would be much longer if he did, and he concentrates on building the relationship between Red and Dufresne.

David Esbjornson has directed this play with a great deal of light and shade, knowing instinctively when to let the pace and volume relax, and when to push it on, ensuring that it flows seamlessly. Associate Director Tim Welton has succeeded in the almost impossible task of keeping the production fresh throughout a long tour (it started at Windsor in September 2022 and ends at Woking in April 2023 – at present!) and must be congratulated on making the play still feel as fresh as the first week!

Evocative, mood-enhancing lighting (Chris Davey) of Gary McCann’s brooding set concentrates the action effectively and Alison de Burgh’s fights are very believable.

Obviously not a ‘great play’ but one that is just the ticket for a cold January evening in Brighton, especially as ATG still has its ‘price promise’ of tickets for as little as £13. Whether or not you have seen the film or read the book, this is, as I said in my first paragraph, a hugely enjoyable and engrossing evening at the theatre. Very highly recommended and, as I have stated before, Brighton is only one hour from London!

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

Based on the 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, the play examines desperation, injustice, friendship and hope behind the claustrophobic bars of a maximum-security facility.

Despite protests of his innocence, Andy Dufresne is handed a double life sentence for the brutal murder of his wife and her lover. Incarcerated at the notorious Shawshank facility, he quickly learns that no one can survive alone. Andy strikes up an unlikely friendship with the prison fixer Red, and things take a slight turn for the better. However, when Warden Stammas decides to bully Andy into subservience and exploit his talents for accountancy, a desperate plan is quietly hatched…

Joe Absolom’s impressive TV career has barely seen him off our screens in 25 years: from Matthew Rose in EastEnders to Al Large in Doc Martin, Christopher Halliwell in A Confession and Andy Warren in The Bay. Ben Onwukwe boasts a 30-year stage career including leading roles with the RSC and Royal Court, as well as 11 years on TV as Recall McKenzie in London’s Burning and more recently, the role of Jackson Donckers in Professor T.

Adapted by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns
Directed by David Esbjornson

Theatre Royal Brighton
Until Sat 28 Jan 2023

Richmond Theatre
Mon 30 Jan – Sat 4 Feb 2023

Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent
Mon 20 Feb – Sat 25 Feb 2023

Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
Mon 3 Apr – Sat 8 Apr 2023

New Victoria Theatre, Woking
Mon 17 Apr – Sat 22 Apr 2023

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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