Review: The Shawshank Redemption takes no prisioners on opening night at Milton Keynes Theatre

It’s been nearly 30 years since I saw The Shawshank Redemption at the cinema, and to this day it remains one of my favourite movies.
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Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but how would the stage version measure up by comparison?

I ventured along to the opening performance at Milton Keynes Theatre last night, unsure if watching a production where I knew how the story would play out could ever hold my attention the way the material had in the mid 90s.

But I’m happy to report that, thanks to the excellent cast led by Joe Absolum as Andy Dufresne and, in particular Ben Onwukwe as Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, it remains a captivitating prison drama in its theatrical format.

Shawshank Redemption Ben Onwukwe and Joe Absolom. Photo: Jack MerrimanShawshank Redemption Ben Onwukwe and Joe Absolom. Photo: Jack Merriman
Shawshank Redemption Ben Onwukwe and Joe Absolom. Photo: Jack Merriman

Based on Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, this stage production examines desperation, injustice, friendship and hope behind the claustrophobic bars of a maximum-security facility ‘The Shank’.

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

Initially silent for months following his incarceration, Andy finally strikes up an friendship with Red ‘Mr Get Things’, who ends up supplying him with a rockhammer and a large poster of Rita Hayworth, both of which will ultimately play an important part in the story.

The play isn’t for the faint-hearted and certainly takes no prisoners. Expect regular bad language, aggression and violence (and one inmate’s rather annoying laugh) – but it’s all part of recreating the sheer depressing nature of life behind bars.

Shawshank Redemption. Photo: Jack MerrimanShawshank Redemption. Photo: Jack Merriman
Shawshank Redemption. Photo: Jack Merriman

And that life gets slightly more bearable for Andy when he used his accountancy skills to help Warden Stammas (Mark Heenehan) and Guard Hadley (Joe Reisig) with a spot of tax avoidance, and so they cut him a bit of slack – including allowing him to set up a prison library.

But when the Warden tells him he’s going to have to share a cell, Andy protests strongly and pleads for privacy, citing the need to concentrate and conceal the creative accountancy he’s carrying out on their behalf.

Little do they know the real reason he wants to stay in solitude…

Ben Onwukwe was brilliant as ‘Red’, whose narration linked the scenes up superbly. He looked genuinely thrilled as the curtain came down and the audience gave a standing ovation following an emotional ending which brought a slight tear to my eye (although it doesn’t take much to set me off!).

Shawshank Redemption. Photo: Jack MerrimanShawshank Redemption. Photo: Jack Merriman
Shawshank Redemption. Photo: Jack Merriman

And special mentions too for Jules Brown as Rico, who gave a glimmer of humour to some of the scenes (including a tendency to store ripped out pages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover down his pants!), plus the menacing duo of Bogs Diamond (played by Jay Marsh) and Rooster (Leigh Jones) who were impressively unpleasant characters you loved to hate.

I’m expecting a mad rush at Amazon’s DVD section (other online shops are available) as while leaving the theatre countless people were heard to be muttering what I had been thinking to myself... ‘I must watch the film again’.

The Shawshank Redemption runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until October 22. More details at ATGTICKETS.COM/MiltonKeynes