A revised adaptation of Shawshank Redemption tours the UK, stopping at The Alhambra where Leo Owen caught the show

Much of the audience are undoubtedly fans of the 1994 movie starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. However, Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns instead chose to use the film’s source material, Stephen King’s original short story Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, as the basis for their adaptation. Since first being staged in 2009, stand-up comedians O’Neill and Johns have made rewrites. This is the first UK tour of the new and improved version, catching Bradford in good spirits as wolf whistles open the show, greeting the naked prisoners standing central stage.

Designer Gary McCann’s cream and sage prison set is immediately evocative with an upper walkway overlooking a courtyard and cells off to the side. As twenty years of the story takes place while the protagonist is incarcerated, McCann relies on lowered wall divides and props to create other key locations, such as the warden’s office, cell interiors and the library. Fifty’s music and scripted cultural references date the story while the flicker of a TV signifies movie night, a stern voice-over the parole board and sound effects represent the world beyond.

Disappointingly, Andy Dufresne (Joe Absolom of Doc Martin fame) feels rather two dimensional for much of the play until laughably over-acting the discovery of a close inmate’s death. Kenneth Jay is a more three-dimensional Tommy, the young prisoner trying to break out of his car stealing habit who Andy assists. As Red, Ben Onwukwe does a superb job of making the character his own, however his growing relationship with Andy unfortunately feels over-edited, resulting in a rather superficial bond.

While what’s on stage is perfectly enjoyable, what’s missing is noticeable to the detriment of the overall production. O’Neill and Johns have opted to use narration and dialogue to skate over Andy’s impressive escape. Although this decision was likely made to simplify staging, it regrettably detracts from the story’s miraculous central premise, taking away its wow factor. Something that lacks too is the play’s structure with the first act merely petering out without any sense of jeopardy sustaining audience interest.

That said, there are still some nice touches, including amusing recitals from Lady Chatterley’s Lover and emotional scenes with the institutionalised Brooksie (Kenneth Jay). Red’s narration is well-crafted and truly moving at times but in this production the claim “Andy was a bright bird that’s for sure” takes some convincing.

Shawshank Redemption showed at The Alhambra until Saturday 25th March before continuing its tour of the UK: https://www.kenwright.com/portfolio/the-shawshank-redemption-2023/