Eddie Izzard convinced EastEnders star to get on stage in Shawshank Redemption

Joe Absolom and Ben Onwukwe in The Shawshank Redemption (Picture: Jack Merriman)
Joe Absolom and Ben Onwukwe in The Shawshank Redemption (Picture: Jack Merriman)

The prospect of bringing what is many people’s favourite movie to the stage would be daunting enough. When you have spent a career in TV rather than appearing nightly in front of a live audience, that challenge becomes even more demanding.

But that is just what Joe Absolom has done - and he’s loving every minute of it.

Joe is starring in a UK tour of The Shawshank Redemption which comes to The Lowry at Salford Quays on Monday. Based on a short story by Stephen King, it’s the tale of a banker sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife and her lover - a crime which he vehemently denies.

The 1994 film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman regularly features in polls of the best films of all time.

“I think that certainly there are some people who come along to see our show and may be a little sceptical, maybe they are thinking ‘I’m not sure how they are going to pull this off’. But I really do think our production stand up on its own,” said Joe.

“I think people are genuinely surprised and don’t even think about the film once we start.”

Joe first made his name in EastEnders. He played Matthew Rose in the TV soap for three years between 1997 and 2000 picking up the Best Actor award in the British Soap Awards along the way.


Joe Absolom and Ben Onwukwe in The Shawshank Redemption
Joe Absolom and Ben Onwukwe in The Shawshank Redemption

Joe Absolom and Ben Onwukwe in The Shawshank Redemption


Since 2004 he has been a mainstay in the cast of the ITV drama Doc Martin playing Al Large, but with the series coming to an end this summer, Joe was left with the challenge of what to do next.

And he found his inspiration from an unlikely source in a church hall in Cornwall.

“One of the cast of Doc Martin said that a friend of hers was doing this one woman show of Great Expectations in a church hall near where I live,” said Joe. “I said I’d go along but didn’t think much about it.

“When I got there I was met by this six foot two bloke in a dress. It was Eddie Izzard who for two hours did this abridged version of Great Expectations which was mesmerising.

“I was moved, I laughed and I suddenly realised that if I really wanted to call myself an actor I should do what real actors do and that’s get on stage.

“It’s quite easy to hide behind a camera. When you mess it up, you can just film it again. Also filming can be very disjointed. You will shoot scenes out of order; you might even start with the ending, so you never really get that sense of telling the whole story.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries Joe wasn’t the product of stage school.

“To be honest as a family we never even went to the theatre or to a pantomime when I was a kid,” he said.

His only previous stage experience was in a production of Abigail’s Party.

“I played a guy who sat on the sofa and said ‘ta’ most of the time,” he said.

So to be handed the lead role in a national tour of a well known story was a major challenge.

“Initially I did find it difficult,” he said. “You have to act in a different way on stage. When you’re acting into a camera everything is quite small but in the theatre you have to project and really connect with the audience.

“But it wasn’t long before I understood what the attraction was of doing stage work. I was nervous at the beginning and I did sometimes wonder why am I putting myself through this but then I told myself I was an actor, no-one had forced me into this profession, it was something I wanted to do.”

The Shawshank Redemption has been on the road for more than eight weeks and audiences around the country have been loving it.

“When you do a TV show you have a sort of sense of duty to watch it when it’s broadcast but that can be months after you filmed it,” said Joe. “And you never really know what anyone has thought about it.

“With this show we are getting some great reactions. We were in Malvern the other week and during the day a few of us decided to go for a walk. We met this group of ramblers coming down the hill and they recognised us from the show and told us how much they had enjoyed it.

“To get that real positive feedback does make it all worthwhile. It re-energises you and makes you even more determined.”

The show follows Joe’s character through more than 20 years in prison.

“I love the way we use music to show the passage of time,” said Joe. “Even if you’re not a big music fan you will recognise the tunes which represent different eras. It’s very clever.”

As well as discovering a new love for the stage, Joe has also been introduced to something else during the run - Wetherspoons!

“I don’t know why but I’d never been in a Wetherspoons until we hit the road,” he said. “They’re so cheap, it’s amazing.

“We’ve also become burger connoisseurs on tour looking out for the best place to grab a burger. That’s a bit of a problem especially as we start the show naked but it’s our treat, we are looking after ourselves pretty well.”

It sounds a cliche but being part of the show has changed Joe’s life and opened up his eyes to the theatre.

“I’ve sat with rooms of actors for years and they’ve talked about shows they’ve done in the theatre and tours they have been on and how good they were and I’ve never been part of that conversation,” he said. “I understand it now. I’m really enjoying it.”

The Shawshank Redemption is at The Lowry, Salford Quays, Monday, October 31 to Saturday, November 5. Details from www.thelowry.com