[All photographs credited to Mark Yeoman]
As ever with a play that is based on an iconic and epic film there are inevitably minor flaws and bugbears with the theatrical production. Part of the problem is that the 1994 film has much more opportunity for depicting the living hell that is the Shawshank Maximum Security Penitentiary. Another difficulty, though, is in the very title: do we really find a sense of redemption for the two leads?
Ian Kelsey as Andy Dufresne is clearly a clever and kind-hearted character, but this is not really a tale of a man transformed by his prison experiences; more one of the whole resilience and self-reliance that makes it possible for him to survive this bedlam. And his buddy ‘Red’, played with dignity and depth by Patrick Robinson, even admits to not knowing the meaning of rehabilitation, no matter whether he is a living example of it.
Andy initially keeps his head down, but this tactic is to some extent seen as a sign of weakness and is taken advantage of by some of the more sinister inmates. We see him being gang-raped and other hideous ordeals including a stint in solitary confinement, capable of breaking a weaker man. One of his mechanisms to stay sane is setting up a library for the inmates and even assisting the ‘screws’ with their tax evasion, the latter of which puts him in icy water – is he sucking up to them for parole?
Despite the unrelenting bleakness of its subject the show is full of black humour and the ending is positively upbeat. Particularly noteworthy is Chris Davey’s lighting that gives a real visceral claustrophobia to the cell scenes which open up to the larger set of yard and library artfully designed by Gary McCann.
Kelsey and Robinson do manage to live up to their filmic counterparts without imitation. David Esbjornson’s direction allows the minor characters to shine also with a powerful supporting cast, much more than mere numbers in the penal system. The pace is perfect, allowing for both serious scrutiny and also to allow the narrative to wash over you at some speed, though never frenzied or distracting.
You do wonder what a ‘lifer’ would think of this depiction of prison life, but really it makes no claims on social realism rather preferring to present its thorny issues in an enticing and intelligent manner. Redemption is a key Christian ethic but the outlook of Stephen King’s writing is more humanist, focusing on the strength of man’s will power in the face of adversity.
The Shawshank Redemption plays until 5th September at Leeds Grand Theatre, and is touring.