The Shawshank Redemption features in everybody’s the top ten greatest movies of all time so no pressure when it comes to producing a successful stage version.
Bill Kenwright’s shocking, disturbing, but, most of all, brilliantly evocative production hits the mark for being one of the most thrilling adaptations in modern theatre.
Shawshank is bleak, violent and powerfully acted by an excellent ensemble. It’s a story that features a brutal male rape, murder, corruption, injustice, and a climax that offers hope and inspiration.
The national tour opened tonight in Milton Keynes Theatre and it’s unmissable.
TV medics Ian Kelsey and Patrick Robinson have escaped soap hell to flex their acting chops back on the stage and they are superb.
Kelsey, last at MKT in Chicago (yep, versatile is his middle name), plays convicted double killer Andy Dufresne who we first see standing naked, centre stage.
He’s just arrived at Shawshank maximum security penitentiary, one of the grimmest jails in America, after being found guilty of killing his wife and her lover. “I’m innocent! I’m telling the truth!” he pleads to uncaring guards and an unspeakably evil governor.
He meets fellow wife killer, Red (Robinson), “the guy who gets things,” and asks for a little rock hammer to pursue his hobby of collecting and smashing stones.
And, over the course of the play, we see what Dufresne has to do to survive (and winning at chess was probably his dumbest move) in an institution where the staff, under the sadistic Warden Stammas (Owen O’Neill, superbly evil, and, for those who are interested he’s also, clever man, the co-writer) are as heinous as the inmates.
Kevin Mathurin’s vicious Bogs Diamond carries out a horrific assault on Dufresne aided by his psychotic sidekick Rooster (Leigh Jones manically enjoying himself).
We later get to know the others in the cell block. Amid the men who have become dehumanised and institutionalised is the librarian Brooksie (a nicely judged performance by Ian Barritt) who is terrified of winning parole and Rico (Declan Perring), who slaughtered his entire family and is now haunted by his actions.
At the heart of this story is Andy and Red and their efforts to survive an unjust, immoral and wicked regime. Both Kelsey and Robinson give dignified, unshowy and commanding performances.
But the prison has terrible acoustics. Dialogue echoes off Gary McCann’s atmospheric set making it difficult to understand some characters.
Robinson’s opening resonated, and some of the others sounded quiet, while it was impossible to understand most of the deep-voiced Mathurin’s lines.
Despite this niggle The Shawshank Redemption is a thrilling night’s drama.
Running at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday.
Stephen King’s novella which became the celebrated movie, The Shawshank Redemption, is now a powerful stage drama that shocks, inspires and thrills.