Venue: The Assembly Rooms
“Inside Shawshank, you have two options – get busy living or get busy dying. This witty and poignant new adaptation of Stephen King’s classic tale of death and life in a men’s prison is set to be the theatre highlight of this year’s Fringe. Omid Djalili heads a powerful cast in a timeless story of hope and triumph over adversity. Written by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns. Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace. ‘Outside I was as straight as they come. I had to spend time in Shawshank to become a crook’ (Andy Dufresne).”
The truth of the matter is for the show headlining the Fringe there are a lot of memories to overcome to remind people that the famous 1994 film was adapted from a not so famous 1982 novella. Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption may seem a bizarre non-sequitur in a career dominated by the horror genre, but the abandonment of individuality to uncontrollable circumstances is as terrifying as horror comes.
It is against this backdrop that the stage adaptation attempts to capture the claustrophobic futility so characteristic of King’s work. Focussing on the loss of identity, fear and control, convict Red (Omid Djalili) narrates the story of Andy Dufresne (Kyle Secor) who, while pleading innocence, spends decades in Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover.
The staging is beautifully raw and redolent, and the production’s most striking imagery comes from the towering mist wrapped prison cells symbolic of the victimhood, the entrapment and insecurity that define the play’s themes.
Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns have produced a script that is at once familiar and new and they’ve done well to infuse the book’s lesser known elements with the memorable silver screen archetypes.
The dialogue, while never a Shawshank-lite homage, does suffer from the inability to commit the time to flesh out each character. Red is most susceptible to this, leaving the character somewhere between a stock and perfunctory one as his dialogue never carries the captivating, lackadaisical, burnout cynicism that might be expected.
Notwithstanding, the narration is not disembodied and there is a refreshing suspense in seeing Red in his two guises of storyteller and inmate. Audiences may know his importance to the end of the story, but the guarantee it will be a safe journey for him getting there is refreshingly forfeited.
Djalili is perhaps least suited to his role, never quite carrying the fettle of a lifetime prison fix-it man. The faux American accent is distracting and physically he stands at odds with the emaciated look of the fellow prisoners.
The chemistry between Djalili and Secor never feels natural, and the conversations, despite being between supposed lifetime brothers in arms, feels forced and awkward. The closing moments of the play are impotent as a result and the play’s coda would have been satisfyingly complete when Djalili gives an excellent monologue pondering Andy’s escape and his hopes for his friend.
This is disappointing, for Secor gives an exaggerated but subtle performance that captures the violation and growing realisation of his character’s circumstances. The manner in which the prison assaults are dealt with is a success only because Secor so brilliantly carries the consequences of what is intimated.
The weakness in the primary characters relationship is mostly compensated by entertaining supporting performances. Brooksie is beautifully realised by Ian Lavender, carrying indefatigability and sheer terror well. The prison guards are effective, but perfunctory. Owen O’Neill is excellent as the warden although his version is too much the jobsworth to have realistically fiddled the books.
Particular note should be given to the genuinely splenetic Sisters. The sabre-rattling and motiveless malignity of Vincenzo Nicoli and Terry Alderton make for an eerie and effective performances. The coterie is well directed, but one wonders if it would have been enhanced had extras been used to turn the ‘when’ of their attacks into a ‘who and from where.’
Overall the production is enjoyable in scale and performance, if never completely capturing believable characterisation or the full passage of time. Never an exercise in iconoclasm, it remains and enjoyable and recognisable adaptation of a well-loved story.
First published 18.08.13 @ FringeReview