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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Shawshank Redemption

Remember that hope is a good thing - maybe the best of things - and no good thing ever dies.— Andy
The Shawshank Redemption
Kevin Anderson (Andy Dufresne) and Reg E Cathey (Red)
(Photo: Nobby Clark)
Shawshank is a maximum security prison in Maine where murderers get banged up for life with few gaining parole. Hope remains eternal but the prison regime is brutal while sexual abuse and rape among the inmates goes unchecked. Here, within its harsh walls, the plot brings together a smart city banker, Andy Dufresne (Kevin Anderson), who was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, and the impudent prison fixer Red (Reg E Cathey) who can import what you want — at a price.

These two, out of a sense of mutual respect, eventually become close buddies. And as the years go by Andy earns popularity with the warden and the guards by using his banking skills to amass fortunes for the corrupt officials. He also gets state aid for a prisoners' library and, in this new stage adaptation, a skiffle band with a small repertoire and a choir. He has a useful sideline in mineralogy which proves useful in the closing scenes of the play.

The well known screen version of The Shawshank Redemption was a slow mover when first released in 1994, but now, with almost half a million votes on the IMDB database, it is consistently rated as the best film of all-time, perhaps because it cleverly combines prison brutality with sentimentality and a prison breakout with the charm of a happy ending.

But the movie moguls will not earn a penny from this stage production — unless it be for the addition of the definite article to the title displayed on the theatre marquee. Irish playwright and actor Owen O'Neill and his co-writer Dave Johns, both stand-up comics, have avoided movie plagiarism, sourcing their script entirely from Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the crisply written original novella by Stephen King for which the stage rights were unexpectedly available.

With its theatrical additions to his basic plot, King insisted on script approval including an initial six-week trial run in Dublin before he would consider authorising UK and other stage rights. Happily Peter Sheridan's well cast, powerfully played production received regular standing ovations at the Gaiety Theatre. And it was a tribute repeated at the Wyndham's official opening performance when an entire London audience for once replaced its usual sitting down acclaim with upstanding enthusiasm and prolonged applause which must have been music to the ears of its West End backers.

With the exception of the two leads, the 19-strong ensemble is made up of British and Irish actors. Kevin Anderson who plays Andy describes himself as a proud member of Steppenwolf and, it must be said, he bears some resemblance to the serene containment of Tim Robbins who played the role on screen. Cast as Red, Reg E Cathey was once an understudy for the film actor Morgan Freeman. He also has the ideal stage presence and warm growly voice to combine a fine characterisation with his key presence as the onstage narrator, taking the audience into his confidence and at one point actually dangling his legs over the front edge of the stage to get close up and confidential.

Third starring role goes to the much-loved veteran English actor Geoffrey Hutchings whose Brooksie, the prison's gentle librarian, brings much of the sentimental appeal of the plot to bear on his plight as an institutionalised, long term convict who with few years to live cannot face the challenge of parole in the world beyond these forbidding walls.

Chief villains of the piece are Mitchell Mullen as the corrupt warden Stammas, his three chief guards and, above all, the terrifying Joe Hanley as Bogs, principal rapist and chess ace whose blood curdling vulpine cry in the second act, follows a scene of hard to watch violence.

The prison setting by leading Dublin designer Ferdia Murphy is suggested by a steel cage, an enclosure on two levels, given visual variety by an atmospheric lighting plot by Kevin Treacy, while the final scene of redemption represented by a lightly clouded sky, also serves as the uplifting illustration on the programme cover — so I can truly claim that I'm not giving anything away with a possible spoiler, even if you have or have yet to see the movie.

Booking runs right through to the next St Valentine's Day revealing confidence in success by the show's producers. And it would be a real surprise if Sheridan's exciting production was not soon cloned for Broadway.

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The Shawshank Redemption
Adapted by Owen O'Neill and Dave Johns from the novella by Stephen King
Directed by Peter Sheridan

Starring: Kevin Anderson, Reg E Cathey and Geoffrey Hutchings
With: Nicholas Aaron, Barry Aird, Shane Attwooll, Sean Baker, Nathan Clough, Geff Francis, Joe Hanley, Ryan McCluskey, Mitchell Mullen, Simon Naylor, Diarmuid Noyes, Lee Oakes, Ronan Raftery, Nick Sampson, Gary Trainor and Peter Vollebregt
Design: Ferdia Murphy
Lighting: Kevin Treacy
Music and Sound: Denis Clohessy
Fight Director: Karl McGee
Running time: Two hours forty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 482 5120
Booking to 14th February 2010
Reviewed by John Thaxter based on 13th September 2009 performance at the Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)

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