When asking friends what their favourite movies are, you can be assured that somebody will wax lyrically about The Shawshank Redemption. Based on the story by Stephen King, the 1994 film regularly finds itself topping the lists of the most popular movies of all time. This season, a theatrical adaptation arrives at Leeds Grand Theatre as part of a national tour. Following a film held in such public affection, how does a new imagining for stage stand up to scrutiny?
Andy DeFresne (Ian Kelsey) finds himself incarcerated at Shawshank State Penitentiary with two life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover. Befriended by Ellis 'Red' Redding (Patrick Robinson), Andy is inducted into prison life but inevitably succumbs to abuse and torment. It's the 1940s and corruption is rife throughout the prison system; by using his tact and illelect, Andy makes long-term plans for the perfect escape.
The play is a close approximation to King's original story and clearly welcomes influences from the Hollywood adaptation. Offering short, intense scenes and a filmic cross-cutting style, the play shuttles along at a relentless pace with a naturalistic style of modern performance. An overarching narrative from Red throughout also provides an intimate, personal feel to historic events, drawing the audience close to characters whilst driving forward a story which encompasses decades.
Ian Kelsey is noble and bright as Dufresne, offering glimmers of the character's hidden genius. As the intricacies of Defresne's escape plot aren't explicitly revealed, Kelsey ushers in an air of enigmatic mystery to the man's secretive intentions. A character of hidden depths and lofty ambitions, Kelsey's portrayal is earnest, subtle and constantly intriguing. He is perfectly paired with Patrick Robinson as Red, who carries the burden of narration with an easy naturalism, bringing a warmth and youthful vibrancy to the role. A part synonymous with Morgan Freeman, Robinson arguably has a big bright star to outshine, however he brings his own individual vibrancy to the part, offering an originality and dry honesty which is instantly likeable whilst thoroughly engaging.
The play pays particular attention to the effects of confinement upon inmates, portraying in unflinching honesty the consequences of warden brutality, rape and murder. The anxieties which long-term prisoners face upon leaving the penitentiary are also explored. In a sequence which is beautifully directed and performed with piercing anguish by Ian Barritt, the hallmarks of Stockholm Syndrome are vividly realised.
David Esbjornson directs with a straight and traditional approach which embraces a workshop feel. Within a simplistic (yet meticulously weathered) set, the ensemble recreate space and place with simple props and dressings, evoking the constant confinement of their setting. There are a few small visual tricks and some evocative sound effects spotted here and there, but for the most part this is a show sustained purely on the intensity of the performances which are all memorably realised. An underscore of contemporary pop hits bridge scenes, whilst signifying the shift of time for the outside world, which is a particularly smart detail.
The Shawshank Redemption succeeds as a play in its own right. In a departure from modern productions that follow hit movies, it doesn't rely on visual effects nor outrageous staging to bring an audience into its world. Composed of colourful characters and directed with verve, this is good old-fashioned theatre buttressed with immersive storytelling. A prison drama with all its key ingredients locked in, The Shawshank Redemption is pure escapist theatre at its most effective.
Originally published for Entertainment Focus.
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