The Shawshank Redemption

The second adaptation of Stephen King's novella sees hope and violence tread the boards

With regular outbreaks of violence, several incidents of gang rape and full-frontal male nudity within the first five minutes, the stage version of The Shawshank Redemption certainly isn’t a family night out. But the West End production is an unmissable event for fans of the book or film. The movie of Stephen King’s short story 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption' is often hailed as one of the finest ever made, and this theatrical adaptation shows that King’s tale works just as well in the live arena.

The Shawshank Redemption – which retains the abbreviated title of Frank Darabont’s 1994 picture – is a two-hour tour de force. There are up to 17 actors onstage at any one time, and the lighting, sound effects and musical score are used to expert effect.

The stage of Derry’s Millennium Forum is perhaps smaller than these players are used to – on a couple of occasions, actors narrowly miss banging into one another – but the cramped confines underline the sense of claustrophobia, as an imposing set transforms the venue into Shawshank State Prison.

Like in the movie, narrator Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding – played onscreen by Morgan Freeman and here by John Earl Jelks – is black, rather than the flame-haired Irishman of King’s imagination. Indeed, the play uses the film as its chief inspiration throughout, rather than the book – and why not? King’s 106-page novella was popular with fans, but it took Darabont’s movie to make The Shawshank Redemption’s name.

Red, an ageing fixer serving a life sentence for murder, introduces us to Andy Dufresne, an educated Redbanker convicted of killing his wife. Kevin Anderson is a dead ringer for the film’s Tim Robbins, and provides a calm centre to proceedings.

Dufresne moves slowly, speaks quietly and rarely gets excited – aside from a key scene in which he loses his cool with the prison staff over their disinterest in pursuing the possible real killer of his wife. Anderson’s character offers relief from the more crazed and hateful players.

Joe Hanley is terrifying as Shawshank’s alpha thug Bogs Diamond, leader of ‘the Sisters’, a gang of deranged homosexual rapists. He is positively unhinged, and makes a severe and lasting impression. Mitchell Mullen is similarly menacing as corrupt Warden Norton, barking passages from the Bible as Dufresne ‘cooks the books’. Mullen so completely inhabits the vile Norton that it’s almost a shock to see the actor cheerily strolling through the lobby after the show, looking for somewhere to have a drink.

There are flashes of humour from Daniel Reardon as institutionalised librarian Brooksie and Ciaran O’Brien as teenage convict Tommy, while some set pieces – such as the ensemble gathering around in formation to watch a movie – are one burst of song away from musical theatre. It all helps to diffuse the tension, and ensures that The Shawshank Redemption’s theme of maintaining hope in the face of extreme hopelessness remains as inspiring as it ever was.

Andrew Johnston