THIS captivating adaptation played out at Cardiff’s New Theatre is a UK-wide tour celebrating the 21st anniversary of the movie of the same name.
The 1994 film brings to life Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, a tale of wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne and his 20-year struggle in the Shawshank maximum security penitentiary.
Bill Kenwright’s production, which began on August 18, has already travelled to 11 UK venues. The play runs from Monday November 23 until Saturday November 28 in Cardiff before finishing the tour in Milton Keynes next week.
Ian Kelsey, mostly recognisable for his roles on British television in BBC’s Doctors and ITV’s Emmerdale, played the lead protagonist Dufresne. The introverted Dufresne learns he can’t survive incarceration alone and strikes up a friendship with Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, a self-proclaimed “man who can get things”.
Patrick Robinson’s stellar depiction of Red was a lynchpin in the play’s success. His more humorous play on Morgan’s Freeman’s film character was coupled with compelling, dramatic narration through Andy’s prison term. Robinson’s extensive theatre background of over 30 stage productions, showed in his ability to grab the performance and steer it through fast-changing sets and plot twists.
The nature of Dufresne’s aloof character can be disengaging, but Kelsey grew into the performance as his character became more assured in the storyline. The relationship between Dufresne and ‘the sisters’, the prison brutes who beat and rape fresh-faced inmates, was a completely engaging facet of the first act.
An unappealing character trait however came from Rooster, one of ‘the sisters’, whose bedevilling cackle initially brought comedy but grew to cringeworthy annoyance throughout the piece. As the performance continued, Rooster’s character, and hideous laugh, thankfully diminished.
Director David Esbjornson used a series of lighting effects and period music to display the progression of time which is seemingly easier to execute on the big screen. The unpalatable issues of gang rape and suicide are dealt with in a manner which is both easy to watch and intense, with a combination of off-stage voiceovers and implication.
Though the pace began to tire at the end of the first act, the second act was welcomed with the timely introduction of bashful young car thief Tommy Williams, played by George Evans. Evans’s vibrancy gave the performance the much-needed momentum to drive the latter stages and keep the audience engaged. The character was carried out with seamless naivety and drew viewers in to empathise with the starry-eyed youth.
Perhaps the most satisfying surprise was the re-introduction of Rico, a hot-headed, passionate Italian-American from King’s book. The character who was omitted from Frank Darabont’s film version provided light humour to cut through the reality of the very stark themes of prison life. Declan Perring’s eccentric representation of Rico’s absent-minded piety brought countless gags at the hapless convict.
The tension between Andy Dufresne and Warden Stammas is an engrossing sub-plot throughout the narrative. The stand-off between the two is gripping, but Owen O’Neill’s rendering of Warden Stammas, though stern and believable, was tarred with an off-putting inability to remove his hands from his pockets almost the entire time he was on stage.
Another warm performance came from Ian Barritt who portrayed Brooksie, the elderly prison librarian known as Brooks in the 1994 film namesake. The issue which long-term prisoner Brooksie faces of combatting the ever-changing outside world upon parole, is played with a loveable ignorance that encapsulates the character.
The concluding monologue delivered by the jaded Red was the cornerstone of the act. The poignant oration to the parole officer held court in a powerful speech by Robinson, which grabbed the audience to complete attention.