The Shawshank Redemption (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

The Shawshank Redemption (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, September 12th)

Prison dramas don’t get much better than The Shawshank Redemption, surely one of the best movies ever made. So it was only a matter of time until eager theatrical writers and producers decided to adapt the gritty and heartwarming piece for the stage.

Except the stage version is based on Stephen King’s original short story, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and fans of the 1994 film need to leave every last thought of that classic in the foyer.

There shouldn’t be a problem doing things in this way. Adapters Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns have had a few attempts with this since its 2009 début in Dublin and this new tour is a freshly written adaptation. Stripping the story back down to its novella origins there could be the opportunity to restate the claustrophobic nature of the story, about a banker sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover, despite his claims of innocence.

But even as the dramatic tension is racked up on a few occasions, the lasting impression is that it is all a bit flat. There are some good performances, there are some great performances, but as David Esbjornson directs, there is never any real sense of a passing of time (and certainly not the 20 years over which the action takes place) and we never truly get to the heart of any of the characters, who remain largely two-dimensional.

And because of the single penitentiary set by Gary McCann, although there is an idea of what it means to be confined we miss the impact of the inspiring ending in which we learn the even greater importance of what it means to escape.

Probably the best performance of the production comes from co-adapter Owen O’Neill, who gives a rather pleasing sinister Willem Dafoe-like turn as ruthless prison warden Stammas, outwardly pious but in reality harsh and remorseless.

At the heart of the tale are Ian Kelsey as Andy Dufresne and Patrick Robinson as the supposedly older and wiser lifer Red. Kelsey plays the role solidly but it is hard to sympathise with him and he never quite displays the necessary integrity of the man refusing to be beaten by the system. You never truly care what happens to him as he plays every game in the book to achieve his aim. Robinson is certainly stronger, narrating the story lightly and with a knowing characterisation that suggests he is always going to be unsinkable. But we need to know more about why these two very different characters become such easy companions beyond the repeated line, “You’re the only one I can really talk to.”

The violence is largely played down, and when it comes its intensity is suggested by lighting and sound. Mostly responsible for these acts are the “Sisters” Bogs Diamond (a slimy Kevin Mathurin) and Rooster (a chuckling but menacing Frank Gorshin-style performance from Leigh Jones) – the audience should perhaps be allowed to become far more outraged by their actions. 

Nice acting too from Ian Barritt as old lag Brooksie, whose many years at Shawshank have left him ill-prepared for life beyond the prison library, and Declan Perring as the cocky but dim Rico.  

The first-night audience undoubtedly lapped up the action and the performances and it is unfair to dismiss the production out of hand as it always remains very watchable. But more tweaks are needed to ensure there are ripples and waves to break up the flat sea.

David Guest