This play is a tour de force – the performances will be among the best you will see on stage anywhere this year.
The Shawshank Redemption, adapted by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns from the novel by Stephen King, is as grim as it is compelling. It would be hard to find anything grimmer than an American prison in the 1950s. Nothing is too bad for these people.
Right from the start, thanks to designer Gary McCann’s bleak but imaginative set we know we are trapped in a place without hope.
As new prisoner Andy Dufresne (in a towering performance by Joe Absolom) enters the wing – the other prisoners jeer at him from a floor above. Their sheer venom for a stranger tells you that for these caged men – anger is all they have.
The story is told by “Red” Redding – a magnificently suave and understated Ben Onwukwe – who could ever tire of hearing him tell a story. Red is Mr Get Things: Belgian chocolates, French wine, Cuban cigars, a poster of Rita Hayworth. That’s how he survives in jail.
Cynics say that every prisoner will tell you he is innocent. These men don’t try. They are all killers – most of them have murdered women and children- even the gentlemanly Red.
We shouldn’t feel any compassion for them – but so real are the characters that we do. Every locked up, shut away man must find a role. Must see himself in a certain light.
Brooksie, an endearing Kenneth Jay, is a little old plump man suffering from arthritis. He runs the “library”. That is, a single trolley full of books. Others make do with preying on the weakest and sucking up to the strongest. Prison is a cradle for bullies – and rapists.
Mark Heenehan is magnificent as the rigid prison governor, Warden Stammas, the ultimate, master bully. He has a heart of granite and a demeanour to go with it. His stature reminded me of President Richard Nixon – who would have been this man’s contemporary.
Every one of this cast is entirely believable, we enter their claustrophobic world. Over 20 years we see them exercising in the yard, sorting the laundry, eating, reading the few books in the library.
Someone says it’s strange how he knew the ending of a book right from the beginning. Turns out someone has pulled out the last pages and put them at the front.
The story turns round prisoner Andy Dufresne, who genuinely is innocent and spends the next two decades years making himself useful.
When young Tommy Williams joins the prison (brilliantly played by Coulter Dittman) Dufresne helps him complete his education. At the same time, because he knows accountancy law, Andy has shown Warden Stammas how to avoid paying taxes.
When young Tommy Williams hears about Dufresne’s crime and realises that a cell-mate in another prison has confessed to the murder that Dufresne is doing time for, Warden Stammas does not want to know.
Dufresne knows too much to be released. Stammas tells Williams he must choose between testifying for his friend or being recommended for parole. Which will he choose?
Powerfully directed by David Esbjornson, this is a visceral drama with shock twists, inspiringly performed.
This is the reason we go to the theatre.
The Shawshank Redemption is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 18.
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