The first thing is to get out of the way of the film if you want to really enjoy the Shawshank Redemption brought to Woking’s New Victoria Theatre in a new adapation of the Stephen King novella by Owen O’Neill and David Johns. Try and get it right out of your head, which by the second half you will. Written by two fans of the film but using the original novella medium as it’s guide this adaptation ensures it loses none of its impact that has made it an iconic story for so many.
The themes of redemption, innocence, brutality and kindness are universal through classical literature and popular culture; King himself cites Tolstoy and the American prison movies he watched as a boy as influences on this story; the bleak backdrop of the scenery serves to magnify these and bring in to sharp relief the menace, futile labour and lost hope that the inmates face.
From the early threat and menace of the high security prison that Andy DuFresne (Ian Kelsey) is thrust into, Red (Patrick Robinson) serves as narrator and bemused observer of Andy’s refusal to bow to the prison system, sometimes with brutal consequences for him. The rape scenes, despite being hinted at, still served as a chilling reminder of the reality of prison. Red’s admiration grows as Andy shapes a new way of life in the prison for the benefit of others yet still cannot comprehend his insistence of his innocence, a story they have heard too often before. The dynamic between Robinson and Kelsey with the exasperated realist trying to advise the stubborn visionary works very well to bring the two elements of the story together and the two characters to make a bearable life in prison.
As the play develops there are many stories around the central characters of Andy and Red. What at first appear to be a pack of brutes reveals individuals with their own heartbreak and vulnerability, yet having been the architects of death to innocents themselves. On one side of these are stood Andy and Red the visionary and the pragmatist and on the other, Rooster (Leigh Jones) drawing his character into the vacuous hyena sidekick of Bogs Diamond (Kevin Mathurin) a brutal man oppressing, bullying and raping his way to the top, conversely using Chess, a thinking game to help him along with it. There are those who have committed their crimes and completing their time cannot cope with the redemption of parole, a moving scene when Brooksie (Ian Barritt) unable to comprehend that he won’t be allowed into a library on the outside moves to end it all in the prison library, but, coached out of it by Andy decides to try. Those who see education as their redemption and the chance to do the right thing but are tricked by the system and the corruption it fosters. Kelly (Julian Mack) a young father who Andy coaches through his first ever exams and ignites a belief in himself and who is the only one who holds the key to Andy’s innocence.
Finally Red and Andy do meet their own redemption, Andy, having partaken in a Faustian dance with Warden Stammas (Owen O’Neill) – an excellent portrayal of the self righteous corrupt official who believes he is running his own world in Shawshank – scrapes his own escape over years with the help of Rita Hayworth and a small chisel, to meet Red, who has done his time and earned his parole. That they meet their redemption on a sunny beach with all the money in the world may well be a cliche but its one that we all recognise as an archetype of all being well with the world and redemption finally being complete. The baddies got their comeuppance (apart from one yes, you Mr ‘eating crisps three rows behind me’ next time get marshmallows) and the good guys got to live.
For fans of Shawshank Redemption the film, and for those who have never seen it, this play is a powerful adaptation of a good story, a morality play with more subtlety than tradition, and one that resonates across cultures and generations, because what it comes down to is that people want good people to do well, and it isn’t only the prisoners trapped in Shawshank as the greedy power hungry guards and warden in the prisons of their own making showed. Andy and Red got out of there, they were still left behind. Everyday.
The power of music to lift the spirits that is so present through this story was represented with songs of the era played in between set changes. While reflecting on the whole thing this song Wide Road by local Woking band Cardboard Carousel written about young men in prisons they visited who had committed crimes which gave them life sentences, is a good listen when thinking about this play.
The Shawshank Redemption is on at Woking’s New Victoria Theatre until Sat 14 November. For information and tickets contact 0844 8717645 or http://www.atgtickets.com/woking