Theatre review: The Shawshank Redemption, Edinburgh

Back in the 1940s, the world’s best-loved movies about one man up against the American system tended to show things coming right in the end; in the last reel, the community would give the Jimmy Stewart character his due, whether in Bedford Falls or in Washington DC.
Ian Kelsey as Andy Dufresne and Patrick Robinson  as Red Redding captivate in Shawshank RedemptionIan Kelsey as Andy Dufresne and Patrick Robinson  as Red Redding captivate in Shawshank Redemption
Ian Kelsey as Andy Dufresne and Patrick Robinson as Red Redding captivate in Shawshank Redemption

By the post-Watergate 1980s, though, the narrative had changed; and it’s that change that’s captured in Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption, in the magnificent 1994 film based on it – famously starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman – and now in Dave Johns and Owen O’Neill’s stage version of the original Stephen King story, first seen on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, and now on tour in a rewritten and scaled-up Bill Kenwright production. The story – as the film’s army of fans will know – revolves around the figure of Andy Dufresne, a successful banker wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover. Over 19 years in the brutal Shawshank penitentiary, he holds on to his humanity despite being raped and brutalised, makes friends with the trustee prisoner “Red” Redding – the man who can, for a fee, get prisoners anything they want – and works quietly and stubbornly to build up the prison library.

The price of this work, though, involves collusion with an increasingly serious financial fraud being worked by the prison governor, Warden Stammas, who makes use of Dufresne’s accounting skills; and when Dufresne finally recognises the full murderous corruption of the system, he realises that there will be no judicial happy ending, and that he must use his own benign form of crime and illegality to make his escape.

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It’s a slightly unsatisfying story, in other words, where the bad guys are punished and the good guys escape, but the system itself remains unredeemed; and David Esbjornson’s good-looking but unshowy production has its muted moments, as Ian Kelsey’s stolid Dufresne – sometimes so quietly spoken as to be almost inaudible – plods his way through almost two decades of confinement.

Patrick Robinson, though, turns in a genuinely powerful linchpin performance as Red, a man transformed by Dufresne’s friendship; and with formidable, powerfully-choreographed support from a ten-strong ensemble of supporting actors, including Owen O’Neill himself as Warden Stammas, the story rings out clear and true, a parable for our time that offers a happy ending, but no easy answers.

Seen on 5 October, 2015

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today, and His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 12-17 October.