The Shawshank Redemption stage adaption is beautifully handled

Ben Onwukwe as Ellis ‘Red’ Redding and Joe Absolom as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption st Theatre Royal, Bath. Photo: Jack Merriman <i>(Image: Jack Merriman)</i>
Ben Onwukwe as Ellis ‘Red’ Redding and Joe Absolom as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption st Theatre Royal, Bath. Photo: Jack Merriman (Image: Jack Merriman)

The Shawshank Redemption regularly tops the polls to find Britain’s favourite film - in 2015 it was voted number one ahead of the first George Lucas Star Wars film and Dirty Dancing.

Now the stage adaptation of Stephen King’s short story has headed to the Theatre Royal Bath as part of a UK tour, with its gritty tale encompassing male rape, suicide, bullying, exploitation and murder.

Directed by David Esbjornson, the play examines desperation, injustice, friendship and hope behind the claustrophobic bars of a maximum-security American prison.

Despite protesting his innocence, businessman Andy Dufresne is handed a double life sentence for the brutal murder of his wife and her lover.

Incarcerated at the notorious Shawshank facility, he quickly learns that no one can survive alone.

Andy strikes up an unlikely friendship with the prison fixer Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, and things take a slight turn for the better.

However, when Warden Stammas decides to bully Andy into subservience and exploit his talents for accountancy, a desperate escape plan is quietly hatched.

The play opens with three newbies stood in the altogether, with creative lighting and strategically placing clothing allowing them to keep their dignity.

The opening scene grips the audience, and from then on they’re hooked into following the fortunes of Andy Dufresne, who is just starting his sentence.

Joe Absolom captures the essence of Andy Dufresne as he maintains his innocence during a 20-year stretch inside, during which he is shockingly subjected to rape, threatened with a knife, and then bullied and exploited by not only the other inmates but the guards and warden too.

The friendship between him and Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, brilliantly played by Ben Onwukwe, sustains hope that one day he will be set free, and gives a glimpse of real and genuine humanity within the harrowing and grim reality of prison life.

Slick set changes and lighting, interspersed with songs from Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan among others, helps seal each scene while keeping the starkness of prison life at the forefront.

The prison ‘library’, in which Dufresne ends up spending much of his time in later years, captures a truly memorable moment as ‘Brooksie’, played fantastically by Kenneth Jay, threatens to torch himself.

After spending 42 years locked up for the murder of his wife and daughter and not being able to cope with the prospect of parole and freedom, it’s truly a gut-wrenching scene.

The other lifers, who seem to alternate between liking and hating Dufresne, really add a frisson of unpleasantness, ranging from hyena-style maniacal laughter through to sexual frustration and unprovoked violence.

Dufresne sees a glimmer of hope to clear his name after Tommy Williams (Coulter Dittman) tells him that a prisoner in another state penitentiary had confessed to killing his wife and her lover.

But that hope is dashed when the cunning Warden Stammas (Mark Heenehan) manipulates Tommy into choosing between parole and Andy and with his tragic death Dufresne’s hopes of freedom vanish.

The cast is completed by Joe Reisig as Bryan Hadley, Owen Oldroyd as Entwistle, Jay Marsh as Bogs Diamond, Jules Brown as Rico, Leigh Jones as Rooster, Kieran Garland as Dawkins and Samarge Hamilton as Kelly.

If you’ve read the book or seen the film, you’ll already know the end, but if you haven’t the final scene is beautifully handled and really does bring the curtain down and the audience up on their feet.

The Shawshank Redemption is on at the Theatre Royal Bath to Saturday, April 1. To book tickets call the Theatre Royal Bath Box Office on 01225 448844 or visit