It's time to get busy livin' or get busy dyin'. Contains spoilers!
This freshly rewritten adaptation of Steven King's novella comes to the stage 30 years after the book's first publication, but the lessons remain as poignant as ever. This production was directed by David Esbjornson, and adapted by Owen O'Neill and Dave Johns, with the tour currently at Curve in Leicester.
Ellis 'Red' Redding (Ben Onwukwe) narrates the story of life in Shawshank prison, picking up from the arrival of Andy Dufresne (Joe Absolom) - a man wrongfully serving two life-sentences for the murders of his wife and her lover. Taking place over a period of 20 years, the play doesn't shy away from the brutality of prison life, the corruption of power, living with injustice, and the psychological effects of incarceration.
Onwukwe delivers a masterful performance, bringing gravitas, heart, and - at times - silliness to the role of Red. Stepping into the shoes of an iconic, arguably career-defining performance from Morgan Freeman in the film, Onwukwe never strays into impersonation, very much creating his own Red, and anchoring the show throughout.
Absolom turns in a much quieter performance as Andy - and rightfully so - portraying the character's fight and resilience, without ever alluding to his grander plan. Andy's political savvy, finding ways to work with the warden in exchange for a more comfortable environment for both himself and the other inmates, always feels believable. You don't struggle to accept this man is capable of influencing prison life for the better.
The supporting cast are also strong. Joe Reisig is appropriately intimidating as Bryan Hadley, the chief prisoner officer. Jay Marsh handles the brutality and complexity of Bogs Diamond with a raw honesty, and Coulter Dittman gives an earnest, heart-breaking performance as ultimately-noble carjacker Tommy Williams.
Mark Heenehan delivers a stern performance, as the ruthless-yet-pragmatic Warden Stammas. At times, this seemed a little one note, but that's more to do with the limitations of the character than the performance of the actor, and he made for an easily dislikeable antagonist.
The stage is the common area of the prison, but with minimal set changes, it also becomes Andy's cell, the Warden's office, and the prison library. It's a very square layout, which does an excellent job at creating a feeling of claustrophobia.
The only downside is that it occasionally affected the sightlines. I was sitting on the stage-left end of a row and couldn't see any of the action that occurred upstage that side. Presumably there was a similar issue on the stage-right side, where some significant moments happen, but if you were sat centrally, you wouldn't notice an issue. It's a minor complaint though.
While the prison in the play is literal, it also represents anyone trapped by their own mindset, not wanting to stray too far from what they know due to fear of discomfort. "Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'" - if you're not getting the most from your life, you might as well be dead.
And some can't adjust to the change. Brooksie (Kenneth Jay) has only known prison life for over 40 years. His identity is engrained with being the prison librarian, so when he's paroled, he can't handle it. Despite all its dangers, the familiarity of prison comes with an element of security for the long-term inmates.
This is a fabulous adaptation, and a very powerful piece of theatre. At times, it's a rough journey, and in two or three moments, it loses pace long enough to make you consider checking your watch, but never long enough to actually do it. Yet the ending is so uplifting that you can't help but feel moved by everything you've witnessed. See this if you can.