Review: The Shawshank Redemption at the Cheltenham Everyman

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption - Credit: Archant

The Shawshank Redemption, brought to the stage, is a rollicking tale that entertains and engages. But if you’re looking for moral complexity, then the heavy clang of prison doors drowns out any subtler noises, says Katie Jarvis

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption - Credit: Archant

“So,” says Ian, as I’ve never seen the film. “This is the story…”

“No!” I scream, in a way usually reserved for large spiders and, once, Barry Manilow when his television smile caught me unawares. “I don’t want to know! I want it to be a surprise.”

“But everyone’s seen the film. Except you,” points out Ian, who doesn’t believe it’s possible to understand plays in general without a thorough briefing first.

I manage to distract him from continuing the narrative - by means of card tricks and describing cute kittens - right until we get to the theatre, when the man next to me turns to his wife and loudly explains, “It’s about a man wrongly accused of murder, who…”

I consider setting fire to his programme, but he doesn’t have one. Or pulling his trousers wider and unexpectedly inserting my ice cream down them, but I don’t have one. And there isn’t much of a gap-potential.

But they have a point. Maybe I’m not qualified to review, as a Shawshank newbie. Because, let’s face it, most of the audience will mentally be dragging out memories of Tim Robbins, and Morgan Freeman (whose calming voice I’d most like to hear while undergoing a disaster, such as accidentally seeing Barry Manilow smile).

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It’s hard to find anyone other than me and the woman almost next to me who hasn’t seen the 1994 Shawshank Redemption – seven Oscar nominations; one of the top-ever rented films, estimated to have made more than $100 million. Tim Robbins is quoted as saying, “All over the world, wherever I go, there are people who say, ‘That movie changed my life’.”

So a play, as imagined by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns, seems the obvious (if come-lately) follow up. In fact, this adaptation is based on the original Stephen King story, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, rather than the Hollywood script. A story inspired by Tolstoy rather than box-office queues.

Our action opens with ‘Red’ Redding (the marvellous, laidback, perfect Patrick Robinson), setting the scene; describing how his fellow inmate, Andy Dufresne (within the limitations of the script, another excellent performance by Ian Kelsey) ended up at the brutal, demeaning Shawshank state prison, where the guards are as corrupt as the inmates. There’s the noise; the humiliation – we meet Andy stripped naked, as the new inmates are sprayed with disinfectant – and the rats (“Most of them are walking round in uniform”).

Red is the man who gets things for others – marijuana, Cuban cigars, French wine, Belgian chocolates. The only things he can’t get are wool to pull over the governor’s eyes – and the rock hammer that Andy wants. Andy – the man wrongly accused of murdering his cheating wife and her lover. The wife who looks like Rita Hayworth, whose glamorous poster Red manages to get for the wall of Andy’s bleak cell.

And so we meet the rest of the rowdy rabble of inmates. There are the gang-rapists - the laughing Rooster (Leigh Jones), and Bogs Diamond (Kevin Mathurin) (I love the fact that Bogs plays serious chess and uses the word ‘altruistic’). There’s ultra-religious Rico (Declan Perring), who’s concerned that God said ‘Let there be light’ on the first day, while not getting round to making the sun and moon until day four. Awkward.

And Brooksie (Ian Barritt), the librarian, who’s so institutionalised that the concept of parole seems like an ejection from Eden.

And thus a fight unfolds on stage. Not just the fight between inmates; or the fight between guards and inmates; but the fight of a man to keep sane in a world where he doesn’t belong.

Or does he?

Let’s be clear. This is a romping good tale that captures my attention from beginning to end. And we’re in no doubt that Andy is innocent of a double murder.

But this is a complex story. Because we gradually learn that none of the characters (surprise, surprise) are any kind of role model. They’ve mainly murdered their own families – and they’re mainly sorry for it. But that’s a difficult concept – especially when some are more pantomime villain than complex pseudo-victims themselves.

And then there’s Andy, a tax wizard, who knows all the tricks of the trade. A man who decides to make his life – and those of other inmates – easier by dodgy accounting that helps evil Warden Stammas (Owen O’Neill) make a small fortune.

The problem is that we’re not invited to enter any kind of moral maze. These are plot devices that move the story on, not intricate issues of expediency, nature or nurture.

And we need that kind of involvement. If we’re truly interested in a character, we judge; if we truly like a character, we forgive.

Here, it feels, we just watch.

Even after Andy is raped – and we hear how much it apparently affects him – he appears, to us at least, unchanged.

The one inmate who bucks this blankness is Tommy Williams (excellently played by George Evans), who, despite his low IQ, does make a complex moral leap - as if a Steinbeck character has wandered in for a brief moment.

Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the rollicking action but, unlike Robbins’s experience, it’s not going to change anyone’s life. A writer as sensitive as King would surely want more nuances. Less Shawshank. More redemption.

The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573;