In 1982, when Stephen King wrote the novella Shawshank Redemption – part of a book of novellas called Different Seasons – little did he know the seismic effect it would have on its readers, viewers, and, most recently, audience… to a certain extent. The 1994 movie adaptation is still one of the first titles rolling off your tongue when asked that uncomfortable first time meeting small talk question: ‘What’s your favourite movie of all time?’ Unfortunately, however, the stage adaptation doesn’t quite live up to this aforementioned reverence.
Unjustly convicted of multiple homicide, Andy Dufresne is incarcerated in Shawshank penitentiary for life – at once forced to adapt to his new surroundings, the barbaric behaviour of the guards, the sexual approaches of certain inmates, and the cut-throat approach of the governor. However, amongst all this, the opportunities arising from his ever evolving relationship with Ellis “Red” Redding – known as the guy who can get things – goes a long way to assuage this life behind bars.
Early on, Andy is seen as incongruous, reticent, and a bit of an outsider, eventually ingratiating himself with the rest of the inmates by surreptitiously using his outside knowledge as a “hot shot banker” in agreeing to help the horrible Hadley with his taxes – in return for three beers a piece for him and his co-workers. As the years go by, Andy becomes a favourite with the governor – entrusted with his ledger, and doing taxes for most of the guards. However, when the gregarious Tommy Williams comes to the Shank, bringing with him unequivocal evidence that, in Andy’s case, the ubiquitous satirical quote, ‘everyone’s innocent in here’ might actually be real, the plot takes an interesting twist. The governor – fearing ignominy, decides to eradicate the only living evidence that could grant Andy an appeal: Tommy. However, what the governor doesn’t know, is that when Andy asks Red for Rita Hayworth to stick on his wall, his instincts are not as pleasurable as people imagine. At least, not in the way the other guys imagine.
Produced by Bill Kenwright and directed by David Esbjornson – with a set perfectly replicating the outlook of a prison – this packed out King’s Theatre production seemed to have an auspicious allure right from the outset. However, in reality, the cast struggle to connect with the subtlety of the story, the psychology of being incarcerated for life, and the true message Stephen King was trying to portray: losing your freedom is like losing your soul. The physicality is predominantly awkward instead of true to real life – with some of the fighting scenes like watching a stage combat workshop. Also, the decision to stray away from the story line – reeling us in towards our favourite moments, then changing them – seemed a bit contrived, and actually had the opposite effect. Surely we were all there to see a replica of the film because we love it?
Having said that, certain performances were very enjoyable – most notably Patrick Robinson as Red – and the production did have a continuity to it that supplemented the enjoyment factor – including some touching and poignant moments. However, one can’t help feeling that the sporadic moments of enjoyment were only evident because they reminded us of the film: not because they were particularly brilliant pieces of theatre. A classic that should have been left alone.