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Brighton Year-Round 2023

The Shawshank Redemption

Bill Kenwright

Genre: Adaptation, American Theater, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Directed by David Esbjornson, Associate Director Tim Welton, Designer Gary McGann, Lighting Chris Davey, Sound Andy Graham, Fight Director Alison De Burgh.

CSM Simon Bannister, DSM Lucie Jackson, Technical Stage Manager Sam Scott, LX No. 1 Matt Chaloner, Costumer Supervisor Johnny Palmer, Head of Wardrobe Nadine Conell.

Till January 28th and touring


The clang and claustrophobia is palpable. Last at Theatre Royal Brighton in September 2015, Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption returns in an even stronger production, also by Bill Kenwright.

It helps the two leads – Joe Absolom as wrongly-convicted Andy Dufresne, and Ben Onwukwe’s Ellis ‘Red’ Redding – are superb. Absolom’s contained, introverted banker: wary, wiry, secretive, but secretly warm, nurturing and loyal. And Onwukwe’s outstanding murder-stretch fixer who as reliable tough-tender narrator lays out the story like vocal tablets of stone.

Stephen King’s compelling if improbable tale is compellingly adapted by Owen O’Neill and David Johns. Everything’s pared: shorn of its filmic slow-burn cult avatar, it returns to the 1982 short story. If the first half’s all Shawshank, and the more tightly-concertina’d second act more nearly the redemption, it’s a bleak neck-and-neck to see if ‘Shank’ will win.

Lighting’s what strikes you first: Chris Davey irradiates an already-impressive set with sudden pitches, shadows and spotlighting. That, and the sound by Andy Graham: sharply-profiled clangour and echo, shudders claustrophobia.

An excellent re-design by Gary McGann elides the awkwardness of that last production’s final backdrop (also by him) and frames the depth of the stage: mostly stripped-back with gantry and steel verticals creating a prisoner gallery below. Iron-paced by director David Esbjornson, it leaves just a tang of the novels it references, like Crime and Punishment. As an excellent short story dilated, it holds its place in prison literature and drama.

Absolom’s wronged Dufresne stitched up more by the system than conspiracy for murdering his unfaithful wife and her lover. Through enforced sodomy by Bogs Diamond (Jay Marsh, an icy chess-playing ‘king’) and ever-braying sidekick Rooster (Leigh Jones) and cronies he emerges proud, solitary and initially unbending.

But he befriends fixer Ellis ‘Red’ Redding. Here, Red’s self-doubt and sudden terror of what to do when on the outside is palpable in Onwukwe’s telling. There’s more than one redemption on hand. Indeed several, not all of which succeed.

Dufresne’s journey includes fixing the tax of screw Hadley (snarling Joe Reisig, a memorably brutal performance as he was in 2015) and thence Governor Stammas – Mark Heenehan effortlessly fills the big shoes left by co-writer Owen O’Neill himself, enacting a snaking Christian hypocrite. With Hennehan we get even more menace, an evilly twisted J Edgar Hoover, capable of literally anything. And who finally grants Andy’s request for a library after a tax-cooking deal; but the price is far higher. Andy’s pitting himself against the governor seems to go only one way.

The prison-facelift in the two halves is telling. Aged librarian Brooksie (a shambling, pathos-ridden Kenneth Jay) realises with parole he can’t borrow books: his performance harrows as a prologue to newcomer Tommy Williams (Coulter Dittman, making a particularly assured theatrical debut – one to watch) whom Dufresne also befriends, tutors for exams, and who in return reveals he’s met the true murderer of Dufresne’s wife and lover.

You might hope for justice, but there’s a fine King twist in the nature of the Governor. The only redemption possible is friendship. We learn the reason for Dufresne’s requests, and Red’s final acceptance of gifts seals a friendship between the two.

It draws Onwukwe’s stature out even further, making his the commanding journey. Indeed, the more human: there’s a certain sphinx-like quality in Dufresne, a riddling in  Absolom’s performance, suggesting why we never quite plumb the depths of his enigma.  Which works for his salvation.

The denouement is all pieced and made (just) believable by King’s laying out one possibility then revealing another with details. Still the emotional truth signals a fine clinch of friendship.

There’s strong supporting performances by Jules Brown as Rico, the literary Hispanic reader of Lady Chatterley, and characterisations of wily Entwistle (Owen Oldroyd), and gang-members Dawkins (Kieran Garland) and Kelly (Samarge Hamilton). A stylish revival of the 2015 production, it’s sharper, more visceral, and with a stronger set and sound, frames even more resonant performances.