A stage version of the hit film, The Shawshank Redemption? Why not! On paper, it seems to work perfectly. There’s a theatre-friendly single setting (prison); helpfully differentiated goodies and baddies; simple costumes (uniforms versus scruffy jeans) and a terrific plot. What could be simpler?
But with the film version of Stephen King’s original novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption in nearly every DVD collection in the country (if you don’t have it, you can get it for a very credit-crunch friendly £3.98 on amazon), why would you bother? We’ve seen the wonderful interaction between Tim Robbins (as the wrongfully imprisoned Andy) and Morgan Freeman (playing prison fixer, Red). We all know the brilliant twist; the fantastic triumph of hope over diversity; the ever-popular redemption. Why would we pay £49.50 for a top-price ticket to see the whole familiar thing played out in a theatre?
(And when it’s raining like it was last night, the question of staying in with a DVD or not becomes a no-brainer.)
Sadly, we can’t give you many reasons to fork out your hard-earneds for this. The aching tension and persistent threat of violence that make Shawshank Redemption the film so gripping, and frankly scary, just doesn’t come over on stage. Once you’ve seen someone hit with a budget plastic baton, and they’ve fallen to the ground theatrically, you’re unlikely to worry about it happening again.
The guards simply aren’t menacing enough; the prison staging not claustrophobic enough; the slightly creepy Kevin Anderson (as Andy) isn’t likeable enough; the Warden (Mitchell Mullen) not threatening enough; even the rape scenes with the prison’s savage “Sisters” fail to make your heart beat faster.
Were this version of The Shawshank Redemption a little more subtle about what is shown and what is understood / perceived, it might work better.
We have to admit that it picked up in the second half. And we enjoyed some of the music, particularly the brief-but-atmospheric a capella singing. (Finally, something not taken straight from the film and reduced.) And if pushed, we’ll agree that there’s something cool about hearing that famous Morgan Freeman voice-over coming from Reg E Cathey (who was in The Wire) in a theatre.
Chatting in a live performance, Red is able to interact with the audience as he chuckles to himself about Andy’s escape: pause when we laugh, raise an eyebrow at a lone giggle, look the people in the stalls knowingly in the eye.
And happily, for all the missing drama and claustrophobia, we’re pleased to report that the redemption is still there. The strength of King’s story means you’ll still leave the theatre with a feel-good glow, and a lighter heart. (To match your lighter wallet.)
The Shawshank Redemption plays at Wyndham’s Theatre until 14 February. Tickets from £10. Box Office 0844 482 5125, or visit www.theshawshankredemption.co.uk/tickets for more information.