The Shawshank Redemption @ Wyndham’s Theatre, London

cast list
Reg E Cathey, Kevin Anderson, Geoffrey Hutchings, Mitchell Mullen, Joe Hanley, Diarmuid Noyes, Shane Attwooll, Geff Francis

directed by
Peter Sheridan
On its initial cinematic release, The Shawshank Redemption wasnt much of a success, it wasnt a big hit with the critics nor with the public, yet it went on to become a serial topper of polls, a regular feature in the lists of the best films ever made.

The scale of its popularity seems excessive but understandable. Its a well-made film, solid and slick if implausible in places and heavy on the sentiment, with its sights firmly set on its audiences emotional buttons: the bad guys get whats coming to them and the good guys find their way into the light.

Prison is depicted as a place of camaraderie and of little but significant victories, a place where a man can learn to know himself. Hope can lift him from the pit; hope can free him in mind of not in body.
The film is also highly aware of the tradition it stands in and makes use of numerous prison movie conventions. Theres something almost comforting about the way it does this: everything is where it should be with the most brutal edges shaved away. While the nastier side of prison life is not totally glossed over there are scenes of rape and violence and suicide this is all mainly dealt with via tasteful pull-away shots. You wouldnt mind watching it with your aunty.

The first thing to note about the stage production, first performed in Dublin, is that its not a scene for scene recreation of the film and in many ways it benefits from that. It doesnt feel like a simple cynical regurgitation and efforts have been made to make it work as theatre.

Owen ONeill and Dave Johnss stage adaptation is drawn (primarily for reasons involving the film rights) directly from the Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, part of the authors fruitful Different Seasons collection. Banker Andy Dufresne is imprisoned for the double murder of his wife and her lover and is sent down for a serious stretch at the notorious Shawshank Prison, ominously known as the Shank. There he becomes friends with Red, a man who knows how to get things, the go to guy for all manner of contraband. Andy has one very specific request: a rock hammer. He also asks for and gets a poster of Rita Hayworth for his wall.

ONeill and Johns (who were both involved in the not entirely dissimilar staging of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest a few years back popular source material and the creation of a confined, mainly male world) have, in a number ways, stayed closer to the source material than Frank Darabont did. On stage, the relationship between Andy and Red is more hesitant and less gushy, theres a greater degree of mistrust between them and a far slower thawing. Andys repeated beatings and sexual assaults at the hands of the vile Bogs and his sisters are also made more explicit and, in the same vein, the details of Reds crime, left hazy in the film, is here made clear.

Elsewhere the writers have more overtly followed the films lead. Theyve, by necessity, condensed the large cast of characters in the King novella, creating composites of the warden and prison guards. In the book, Red is a white man of Irish descent, yet for the stage production, theyve cast The Wires Reg E Cathey in the role (who also has a rich Morgan Freeman-like manner of delivery). This has the effect of making the Shawshank of both the film and the stage one of the most racially harmonious places in the US of the 1940s. At no point is a single racial epithet thrown at anybody, yet the word faggot rebounds around the place like a baseball bouncing of a cell wall. Oz this aint, despite the presence of Cathey, who played the supremely shifty Warden Querns in the HBO prison show.

The cast do a decent job of inhabiting these familiar characters. Kevin Andersen is appealingly enigmatic as Andy, far more susceptible to emotion to rage and despair than his filmic counterpart, while Cathey is twitchier and more cautious. The performances at least convey a degree of ambiguity not present on screen. Both men are using their particular skills to survive and Andys actions seem altogether more self-serving; when Red does his speech about how some birds just arent meant to caged, there is a faint trace of irony to his words.

Peter Sheridans production goes some way towards capturing intensity of a world behind bars in face the two-level set is entirely made up of prison bars, which is great for creating claustrophobia, less good for staging a roof top scene or for giving a sense of the outside world, the endless ocean and the town with no memory to which Andy wants to flee.

But what subtlety there is comes from the performances not the script. This is a world where the good guys, regardless of past deeds, are noble and true, and the bad guys are bad to the bone and deserve all they get (there was even some panto-style booing at the end). There are no risks being taken here. It may not be a straight retread of the film but its close enough to keep the majority of the audience happy. There can be few people who dont know the films last reel reveal; the element of surprise that a least provided a satisfying pay-off on first viewing, has long since evaporated. Its become comforting as an old jumper, a somewhat toothless thing. There doesnt seem to be much reason for staging this story, other than its safe bet status and its near guaranteed audience and thats not really reason enough.

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