Monday night saw the opening of The Shawshank Redemption at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens. Based on Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and its much loved movie adaptation, this stage adaptation is by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns and directed by David Esbjornson. It tells the story of wily prison fixer Red (Ben Onwukwe) and his friendship with Andy (Paul Nicholls), an unassuming banker who has been convicted of the double murder of his wife and her lover, crimes of which Andy insists he is innocent.
Red and Andy meet when Andy asks the fixer to obtain a rock hammer for him. Helping Andy could compromise Red’s chances of parole, but he helps anyway. Meanwhile, mild-mannered Andy shows his defiant side when he is asked to say Grace—a decision which invites the wrath of Warden Stammas (Jack Ellis). Selfless and fearless acts are rare in Shawshank and are unlikely to go unpunished, but they bring Andy and Red together in a friendship which might never have flourished on less desolate ground.
Lighting is used to good effect to evoke day and night and the cycle of the seasons within Shawshank’s claustrophobic and otherwise bleakly unchanging walls. The march of the years, from 1947 to 1966 is marked by popular music of the time, played during the brisk scene changes.
Paul Nicholls is likeable and sympathetic as Andy, balancing the character’s sometimes curious equablity in the face of the horrifying physical and mental abuse he encounters at Shawshank with Andy’s secrecy and resolve. While Ben Onwukwe might be expected to have his work cut out, taking on the role made famous by Morgan Freeman, brings a different Red to the stage. Changes in the way he uses his body as the play progresses or as he switches between his roles of older narrator and younger prisoner rival the music selection as a way of mark the passage of time. Meanwhile Jack Ellis is chilling as the sadistic and deeply corrupt but apparently untouchable Warden Stammas.
As fans of the film know, The Shawshank Redemption is a story of the remarkable human ability to find hope and remain resilient, even when at the mercy of corrupt and unjust powers. It also serves to affirm that a person of integrity can not only rise above despair and cynicism but also raise up others around him. This production is successful in bringing Andy and Red’s harrowing but ultimately uplifting story to the Blackpool stage. No wonder so many members of the audience had smiles on their faces as they left the theatre last night.
The Shawshank Redemption runs until Saturday 19 November. For more information or to book tickets visit wintergardensblackpool.co.uk
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