TW: sexual violence

Bill Kenright’s 2023 touring production of The Shawshank Redemption, which ran at the Oxford Playhouse from February 6th – 11th had a lot to live up to. The play thankfully did not rush through everything in the Stephen King novel and the 1994 film, but instead focused on the experiences and individual personalities of the Shawshank inmates, which made it an emotionally engaging piece of theatre. 

After settling into my seat, the curtain was drawn to reveal two men standing almost naked, clutching their new prison clothing, with the grey set of the Shawshank State Penitentiary looming behind them. We were immediately addressed by Red, an older prisoner, who introduced the audience to Andy Dufresne, who had been wrongly accused of murdering his wife and her lover. The story then followed Andy through his years in prison, his growing friendship with Red, and his work for prison warden Stammas.

Ben Onwukwe’s performance as Red was remarkable throughout, and his characterisation of Red as wise and calm invited the audience to grow close to the prisoner. His asides in the play, while the rest of the cast were frozen, effectively built a relationship between Red and the audience, in order to carry them through the story. 

The work of Mark Heenehan as Warden Stammas also deserves a mention, as his ominous presence onstage brought to life the corruption of the prison, particularly potent with modern questions about the effectiveness of incarceration as a means of punishment. Additionally, Jules Brown’s performance as eccentric, God-loving Rico helped to bring the background prisoners to life, and added to the energy onstage.

Unfortunately, Joe Absolom’s portrayal of Andy Dufresne was underwhelming, since his presentation felt rather stilted. Absolom’s performance was quite unsubtle and his line delivery was flat, and at some points even toneless, with little of Andy’s individual personality coming through. I cannot imagine that many audience members were actually rooting for him in his pursuit of proving his innocence, since Andy was not presented with many warm characteristics.

One of the highlights of the performance was Gary McCann’s set, consisting of bars and industrial lights wrapped around the stage, and the actors’ ability to work with it to make Shawshank seem like a living, breathing place. Of particular note was the dining room, as the cast sat on tables and played with chairs, to create a sense of the built up energy and tension among the prisoners. Following that, the use of a library cart and the frequent play with books throughout also added to the individuality of the background characters, and made the prison life portrayed feel realistic.

Chris Davey’s lighting design was also impressive, particularly the hanging light shades which were periodically brought down in varying formations over different parts of the stage to distinguish between different areas of the prison. The single light hanging over Andy’s cell effectively portrayed the isolation of prison life.

One important scene was the gang rape of Andy in the first half, which was key to the presentation of Andy’s quiet resilience during his time in prison. The use of a blackout and silence except from Andy’s voice created a horrifically emotional moment for the audience, and reinforced the brutality of life in Shawshank. This reminded the audience that amidst the camaraderie and friendship between the prisoners, there was a real danger for the inmates.

For those who know the critically acclaimed 1994 film, there were some key moments missing from the play, such as the death of Brooks and Andy’s actual escape through the tunnel which he had dug. However, this allowed the performance to focus more on character portrayal and the overall journey of Andy and Red, rather than rushing through scenes to perfectly recreate the film. This slower pace worked very well onstage and allowed the audience to feel more invested in life inside Shawshank.

The play’s exploration of redemption, friendship, trust and violence through effective set and lighting design and mostly nuanced character portrayals, made it a powerful watch in which the audience are wrapped up in the mixture of joy and horror of Shawshank. It is well worth a watch as it continues with its national tour this spring.