Saturday, December 3

The Shawshank Redemption – The Lowry

The 1994 screen version of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ consistently tops the IMDB rankings as their most popular movie of all time, but this tale of Andy Dufresne, a banker wrongly convicted of killing his wife was a slow burner on its initial release, only achieving the preeminence it now enjoys in cinematic history over the ensuing thirty years. A similar glacial timeframe forms the backdrop to the story, being set over a two decades in the hellish surroundings of Shawshank prison in Maine and following Dufresne through his suffering and eventual vindication; a story of hope and a triumph of positivity under the most trying of circumstances.

The film, based on the 1982 novella by Stephen King has become so pervasive in modern culture, that there will have been few attending the cavernous Lyric Theatre in Salford this evening who wouldn’t have seen the masterful performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as Dufresne and his fellow inmate Ellis ‘Red’ Redding. Following in these large footsteps with a staged version of the story is no easy task, the touring production which opened this evening gives Joe Absolom and Ben Onwukwe the chance to give fresh interpretation to the characters, also Director David Esbjornson had an opportunity to examine penal institutionalisation and male friendship from a new perspective. Unfortunately, these possibilities were squandered (Bill Kenwright presents… should have been a clue!) and instead what we witnessed was a staged reenactment of the movie, without any of the breadth and life that made that cinematic experience so unique.

The constituent parts of this production were all adequately conceived and executed, the double height set dressed in cold grey (by Gary McCann), conveyed the miserable and oppressive nature of prison to good effect, the direction carried the story forward briskly and the music conveyed time and place with accuracy and wit. The supporting cast fleshed out their characters within the constraints of the script with Coulter Dittman catching the eye as Tommy in the second act and Kenneth Jay arousing compassion in the tragic role of Brooksie, the institutionalised trustee. Absolom played Dufresne as an articulate schemer, not afraid to exploit his position of power with crooked Warden Stammas (Mark Heenehan), whilst Onuwukwe narrated the story with wry humour and confidence. Often the portrayal by Onwukwe strayed dangerously close to a Morgan Freeman impression, no blame is attached to him for this but rather it betrayed a lack of confidence by Director Esbjornson in having any vision beyond the filmed original.

The claustrophobic nature of prison life was well realised, but the lack of scenes beyond the prison walls meant that any other storyline was described through exposition, rather than enacted. More thoughtful direction could have allowed a vivid showing of the murder for which Andy was convicted, similarly the ‘Rita reveal’ at the conclusion fell flat when it should provide a tense conclusion to the story.

Tonight’s audience will no doubt be rushing home to dig out their old DVD or find the film on a streaming platform, and anyone wanting a theatrical rendition of the movie will find comfort with this production. Similarly, that rare person who has not seen the film (hello to my sister), would enjoy this version on its own terms in the same way a person who hasn’t drank champagne will enjoy Cava. To this reviewer ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ felt a thin, emaciated and one-dimensional piece, lacking any of the heart-swelling profundity of the movie, or offering any new insight into the original story.

The theatrical equivalent of a tribute band trying in vain to recreate the original, by the conclusion it felt more like ‘The Shawshank Reduction.’

Playing until Saturday 5th November,

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 31st October 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★