‘Joe Absolom & Ben Onwukwe have a great partnership’: THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION – Touring ★★★★

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Touring – reviewed at Oxford Playhouse

Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, but probably better known from the 1994 film starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, the stage adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption (written by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns, directed by David Esbjornson) is currently touring the country. This production stars Ben Onwukwe as Red, and Joe Absolom as Andy Dufresne.

The story begins in the mid-20th century, when banker Andy Dufresne is convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover, and sent to Shawshank State Penitentiary to serve a double life sentence – despite consistently protesting his innocence. After initially keeping himself to himself, he approaches Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (who has a reputation for being able to smuggle pretty much anything into the prison) and asks for a rock hammer to allow him to pursue his hobby of rock shaping, and also a poster of Rita Hayworth.

Andy frequently finds himself on the wrong side of ‘the Sisters’ (a prison gang including Bogs Diamond and Rooster), who beat and sexually assault him; Andy eventually gains protection from them when the guards realise he can assist them with their finances. After this, Andy is free to pursue his project of expanding the prison library – though in exchange for regular money laundering for Shawshank’s warden. When new inmate Tommy Williams arrives, several years into Andy’s sentence, it appears that his belief that “hope is a good thing” might come through for him after all…

As this is a standalone story, not part of a series, you absolutely don’t have to have seen the film or read the book to enjoy it or follow what’s going on. Even knowing the ending (without having read or seen it) doesn’t spoil the enjoyment. What I would have found useful, however, is some concept of time; it’s clear that time passes, of course, but there’s no indication of the year in which Andy’s story begins and when it ends. It’s not always something that’s hugely important in stage shows, but when you’re depicting life sentences in a particularly corrupt & horrible prison, I think it is necessary to acknowledge the passing of time to a much greater extent. The novella spans 30 years (from 1947 to 1977), which obviously can’t easily be portrayed onstage – it wouldn’t be practical to try and age the actors up realistically – but that doesn’t mean time should be ignored.

I did wonder if the scene transitions were meant to suggest this, as a different song plays out between each scene, but I’m not entirely sure if they all come in chronological order or not (there are quite a lot to consider!). As these transitions become predictable and a bit dull very quickly (fade to black, play music, set change, repeat), even adding a projection of the year when appropriate would make them more interesting – though I’m more of a fan of imaginative scene transitions, that work set changes into choreography, and don’t try to pretend that this change isn’t happening.

Obviously there are certain limitations with touring productions for practicality’s sake (which is presumably why there isn’t much of a visual representation of the library – the only thing lacking in Gary McCann’s excellent set), but creativity is at the heart of theatre and Esbjornson’s direction does sometimes feel a bit undercooked. Similarly, the fight sequences are rather lacklustre; the production could have done with a specialist fight director to make them feel more authentic and believable. Considering the severity of the assaults meted out by the Sisters (and the guards), this is a key component in selling the story – throwing punches into thin air just won’t cut it.

What is believable is the connection between Joe Absolom and Ben Onwukwe as Andy and Red. Their interactions are fantastic, showing the early uncertain interactions and the growing friendship that emerges over the years. Onwukwe is particularly brilliant as the narrator, dipping in and out of scenes when required – this is a key component of the book and the film, and works wonderfully well onstage too.

Though there is an edge of discomfort at rooting for a group of men who admit to extreme violence towards women, especially given the current climate and recent high profile cases, there is also something to be said for the subset of prisoners who try (against all odds) to rehabilitate themselves. Given the recent backing of the death penalty by far right cranks in our current government, it’s important to remember that justice systems aren’t infallible – and that seemingly scary deterrents just don’t work. The balance of humour and darkness is handled pretty well in this play, and ultimately it makes for an enjoyable couple of hours in the theatre.

My verdict? Though not always blessed with the most creative decisions, this is an excellent version of a well-loved story – Joe Absolom and Ben Onwukwe have a great partnership.

Rating: 4*

The Shawshank Redemption was at Oxford Playhouse from 6-11 February 2023. It is on tour until 13 May 2023 – full details are on the official website.

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