While it’s based on the Stephen King novella and not on Frank Darabont’s screenplay, this solid staging of “The Shawshank Redemption” ably exploits popular affection for the 1994 film. Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns’ script makes what devotees may find surprising deviations from the film — but which, by and large, suit the stage medium. However, by casting Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman look- and sound-alikes Kevin Anderson and Reg E. Cathey, the production makes it clear that buying into existing sentiment is the priority.
Comedians O’Neill and Johns (the former is Irish, the latter English) conceived this adaptation five years ago as a follow-on from their Edinburgh Fringe hit stage versions of popular film titles “Twelve Angry Men” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (the latter went on to a fraught West End run starring Christian Slater). Ireland-based Lane Prods. obtained rights directly from King for his 1982 novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” with King retaining script approval and greenlighting a six-week Dublin run earlier this year — which was sufficiently well-received to prompt this West End transfer.
The central challenge in staging this story is that the action is contained to the single, stultifying location of a high-security prison; breaking away to crime scenes, courtrooms and the ex-cons’ future lives is not an option here as it is on film. Helmer Peter Sheridan and his creative team confront this head-on: Ferdia Murphy’s looming set of prison bars closes in a rectangular playing area, with two levels of upstage platforms behind the bars representing the cells.
The staging approach is good, old-fashioned poor theater: actors carry necessary set pieces on and off stage, with spotlit exchanges downstage covering the scene shifts. While the cracking pace of Sheridan’s staging largely holds audience interest, it does not aid in conveying a crucial element of this imagined world: the slow and lengthy passage of time. Little attempt is made to signpost a two-decade sweep of action; the assumption, presumably, is that we know time is passing because we know the story already.
That story here is somewhat gentler than in the film: warden Stammas (Mitchell Mullen) is a crook, but not an unbalanced purveyor of brutal violence; Brooksie (Geoffrey Hutchings) disappears after he’s released, rather than hangs himself; and there are no scenes of prisoners in solitary nor any attempt to stage the climatic, gruesome climb of banker-turned-con man Andy Dufresne (Anderson) through a sewer pipe to freedom. This is doubtless wise, because those moments where violence does erupt are among the production’s least convincing: the pillowy thump of a fake truncheon on an actor’s back inevitably lessens verisimilitude.
The introduction of a prison band in the second act (which allows Cathey as Red to display impressive skill as a saxophonist) lets composer/sound designer Denis Clohessy add texture via live and recorded music, but leads to one of the production’s more egregious moments of sentimentality: the prisoners’ defiant full-harmony rendition of “Rock of Ages” when Tommy (Diarmuid Noyes) is killed. The scene is a lesser stand-in for the film moment when Andy amplifies a Mozart aria across the prison.
The necessary center of this story, of course, is audience empathy for the two central characters and the unlikely bond they forge. It’s here that the production falters most significantly.
While capable actors, Anderson and Cathey rush through early scenes and both appear to be modeling their performances on those of their screen counterparts, from Anderson’s clenched-jaw restraint to Cathey’s wry toughness. While Andy’s secretiveness is a key plot point, limitations of the medium as well as the performance itself do not give us a strong enough impression of the man’s inner life. Red gets more face time with the audience, but his direct-address monologues serve more to advance the plot than give us a sense of what makes him tick.
What first appears to be a high-road ending, which suggests but does not fully literalize Red’s embrace of freedom, is undermined by an unforgivably mawkish “reunion” between the two lead actors at the curtain call — which nonetheless brought most of the audience to its feet. Familiarity of material and the feelgood factor should guarantee solid box office and possibly enable a life Stateside for this decent but unchallenging fare.