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The Shawshank Redemption

Note: This review is from 2013

Review by Steve Bennett

Familiar comedians doing a familiar piece of theatre is now a Fringe staple, so adapting what is widely regarded as one of the best films ever to have come out of Hollywood was surely a no-brainer, at least financially.

But taking on the prison epic The Shawshank Redemption brings potential pitfalls, too, for who could ever measure up to Morgan Freeman’s nuanced and powerful performance as Red, the guardian angel who takes new inmate Andy Dufresne, under his wing, but ultimately learns so much from him?

Omid Djalili cannot hope to match Freeman’s quiet gravitas, but as narrator he sets up the play with authority, allowing himself to be a little more sassy as the story unfolds. A savvy fixer, he is respected inside Shawshank State Penitentiary for his ability to acquire anything, at a price.

The Anglo-Iranian comic makes for a convincing streetwise American lag, even if the relationship with Dufresne, sympathetically played by Homicide: Life On The Street star Kyle Secor, isn’t quite as tight as in the film.

Nonetheless, the play – adapted from Stephen King’s original novella by comedians Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns – exerts a strong emotional pull, as we root for the inmates trying to preserve some sense of humanity in the face of a brutal, unjust regime.

O’Neill himself plays the governor with the quiet stillness of the truly psychotic. He strikes a deal with Dufresne, a banker who convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. If he cook the boss’s books, the prisoners get for certain privileges. However, it turns out the arrangement isn’t as even as the smart inmate thought.

Johns, meanwhile, plays the less sadistic of the two guards. It is not they that Dufresne must fear most, however, but ‘the sisters’, as played by Vincenzo Nicoli and Terry Alderton, who rule the block through violence and rape. Alderton brings the primal physicality of his stand-up to bear on his role, menacing and unhinged from body language alone.

The ferocity of their attacks is excellently staged through slow-motion blows, but sometimes the consequences seem rushed; with only 85 minutes to tell the tale normality – or at least the Shawshank equivalent thereof – is restored very quickly.

The other comic in the cast is Ian Lavender, of Dad’s Army fame, delivering a touching performance as the institutionalised inmate who has invested his life in the prison library, and can’t bear the prospect of life outside.

Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace, the design is simple but effective; five moveable double-decker cells in soulless grey create a stark look – even if the Music Hall of the Assembly Rooms is too big an expanse of space for it to work at full effectiveness, lacking the inescapable claustrophobia of a more confined venue.

Still, the taut story and acting make for a gripping experience, deserving of its place on so many Fringe ‘must-see’ lists.

Review date: 25 Aug 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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