Review: The Shawshank Redemption at the Belgrade Theatre

It’s really difficult to adapt films to the stage when the way in which a story is told really benefits from a cinematic edge. Some things you just can’t do with a full stage performance – there are certain ways that a close-up of a sideways glance, set design and ‘show and don’t tell’ narration can create more palpable tension in film…

Disclaimer: Press review. Content warning: SA

That said, I’d never seen The Shawshank Redemption on screen before so I was entirely new to the story when I saw the play! I was going into it with completely fresh eyes, and my partner who had seen the film enjoyed the play despite it being one of her most loved films and so she coming at it from an entirely different perspective. I feel in this way, we could give it a more thorough critique.

The characters were (apparently) very different to the film’s characterisations, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; just don’t go in expecting it to be quite the same. My partner said that Andy wasn’t quite written in the same way as the film (and although we didn’t want to make this entirely about film vs stage play she did believe that their relationship did make or break the story.)

We really liked how Red (Ben Onwukwe) was depicted, and the cast were all really talented. I have ONE criticism of the acting, and that is, just because you’re a prison guard, you don’t need to walk and move in such an… obvious way. It changed the intimidating moments with the guards from realistic to almost parody, and broke the tension of those scenes for me just a little bit. That said, all the actors were well cast and the stage direction and set was excellent (as we can expect from all performances at the Belgrade).

I can see why there were deliberate ways to remove tension on stage – ultimately you want to make sure the audience is having a good time and the best way to do that is to make them laugh, right? The secondary characters really did help to get the audience laughing and kept us entertained and of course, that will always be the priority in a stage performance of this kind- but it was in direct conflict with the tension which the movie builds and at odds with the source material a little bit. My girlfriend informed me that there were lots of small comedic moments in the film which could have been used, but weren’t.

Here is where my partner’s knowledge surpasses my own and she came up with a really interesting point too. I was informed that the chemistry between Red and Andy was great but just not as clear a bond as they formed on screen, so perhaps that was part of the problem with the stage adaptation. They could have just lifted and shifted She mentioned that where chess is used as a tool to fuel the bond between Red and Andy (Absolom) on screen, on stage it was used in a way to almost become the ‘provocation’ for a R*** scene which was an odd choice. One of the ways that the film used the character of Bogs (Jay Marsh) was to show how corrupt the prison is and in the stage performance this was very much told to the audience rather than shown.

The best part had to be the ending which was really heartwarming. Ben Onwukwe gave an excellent monologue which was delivered brilliantly and was really captivating. I am unsure whether this is just me though… but it didn’t make me want to cry, or conjure much emotion for me like a lot of plays do, however that might be me just not being able to relate to the characters. I found that the motives of some of the characters were skewed, even when I didn’t know who they were – for example, why were they so bothered about Andy’s history if they had all done the same crime? It didn’t make much sense.

Perhaps this one just wasn’t for me! I’ve seen many press performances at the Belgrade over the years and of course, I want to maintain my integrity and say when I don’t have as good a time as I have at others. Ultimately we felt with slightly more refined writing, the play could have done the story justice much better.

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