Review The Shawshank Redemption, Theatr Clwyd by Donna Williams

 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Just over a year ago, I attended The Da Vinci Code at Theatr Clwyd. Although I enjoyed this production, I felt that the book simply didn’t translate well to the stage, mainly due to the amount of detail included in the plot which there just wasn’t time to delve into in two hours. However, the same certainly cannot be said of The Shawshank Redemption.

Based on Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, this production examines topics from injustice to friendship and most notably, hope, in a place where the word ‘hope’ seems impossible: Shawshank Maximum Security Penitentiary. The 1994 movie starred Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman and was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Among the movie’s fans were stand-up comedians Dave Johns and Owen O’Neill who realised the potential for Shawshank as a theatre production. The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, where this current tour will end, agreed, and an adaptation of the original novella was first produced there in 2009. It then transferred to London and the adaptation was rewritten and put on in Edinburgh in 2013, with its adapters co-starring alongside Omid Djalili as Red.

For those not familiar with The Shawshank Redemptionit tells the story of Andy Dufresne who, despite claiming to be innocent, is given a double life sentence for the brutal murder of his wife and her lover. Incarcerated at the notorious Shawshank facility, Andy strikes up an unlikely friendship with the prison ‘fixer’, Red, and as their relationship strengthens, things seem to be looking up. However, when Warden Stammas decides to exploit Andy’s talents for accountancy, a desperate plan is hatched.

As the play begins, we are transported to the penitentiary. The set is simple but extremely effective with the prison walls surrounding the stage on both sides and upstage, allowing for a feeling of claustrophobia throughout. The main bulk of the set remains, but as the story unfolds, each scene is set within the walls: a postered wall and a bed for Andy’s cell, a desk, chair and wireless for the warden’s office, a long mess table and chairs for meal times. The transition between scenes is flawless, with the actors completing all set and prop movement seamlessly. Most scene transitions are also marked with a prison siren or alarm to signal a new location or place in time. The fluidity of the piece is extremely impressive, the action narrated by the character Red, portrayed perfectly by Ben Onwukwe. Red speaks directly to the audience, often regarding sensitive prison topics such as gambling, rape, corruption and so on, and he draws us in, allowing us to empathise not only with him, but with other inmates at Shawshank so we better understand life within the walls- we are allowed on a journey with each character over the course of the ‘twenty years’ we spend with them. And it’s not without a great sense of humour and plenty of comedic elements. Also noteworthy is

Red’s final monologue which he delivers as he completes a full costume change, reflective of his character’s change from despair to hope. A ‘changed’ man?

Joe Absolom’s Andy is the perfect mix of kind, compassionate, determined, if not a little arrogant in his own self-sufficient way. Absolom provides the character with just enough ‘crazy’ to have you questioning his every move. Consequently, even those familiar with the story begin to question the outcome! Credit must go to the lighting team- providing an appropriate atmosphere throughout. From the spotlights on the new ‘fresh’ inmates at the very beginning, to the effect provided for Andy’s fluttering butterfly at the end. Lighting is also used effectively to depict the men watching a Rita Hayworth movie, giving the impression that a projector is being used, as well as for scene transitions and instances of violence which are cleverly choreographed alongside appropriate light and dark moments.

Dave Johns and Owen O’Neill were certainly spot-on in believing that The Shawshank Redemption could work well in the medium of theatre. The prison setting makes for a fast paced, adjustable, well thought out production, which shifts from scene to scene effortlessly. With the addition of successful sound, lighting, costume and a fantastic cast, this is a must-see production.

The Shawshank Redemption continues its UK Tour on March 6th at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and finishes on May 13th at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. Head to the website to book your tickets:

Theatr Clwyd, Mold

February 27th-March 4th, 2023


Andy Dufresne: Joe Absolom

Ellis ‘Red’ Redding: Ben Onwukwe

Warden Stammas: Mark Heenehan

Brooksie: Kenneth Jay

Hadley: Joe Reisig

Entwistle: Owen Oldroyd

Bogs Diamond: Jay Marsh

Rooster: Leigh Jones

Rico: Jules Brown

Dawkins: Kieran Garland

Tommy Williams: Coulder Dittman

Kelly: Samarge Hamilton


Director: David Esbjornson

Associate Director: Tim Welton

Designer: Gary McCann

Lighting Designer: Chris Davey

Sound Designer: Andy Graham

Fight Director: Alison De Burgh

Company Stage Manager: Simon Bannister

Deputy Stage Manager: Lucie Jackson

Technical Assistant Stage Manager: Sam Scott

Lx No 1: Matt Chaloner

Costume Supervisor: Johnny Palmer

Head of Wardrobe: Nadine Conell

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