The classic Hollywood film The Shawshank Redemption has been transformed into a deeply moving stage play which is currently playing in Birmingham.

The Shawshank Redemption is now running at The Alexandra Theatre.

Stephen King’s 1982 short story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which explored themes of freedom and friendship, was turned into a critically-acclaimed film in 1994 – which garnered seven Oscar nominations – and it continues to be included in Best Film lists to this day.

Dufresne (Joe Absolom) and Red (Ben Onwukwe) dream of freedomJack Merriman
Dufresne (Joe Absolom) and Red (Ben Onwukwe) dream of freedom

The story follows the trials and horrors faced by a man who is handed two life sentences by a judge for the murder of his wife and her lover. Despite his innocence, Andy Dufresne is sent into a virtual hellhole of a maximum security penitentiary called Shawshank where everything is plunged in darkness, pain, perversion, and daily violence.

Dufresne finds some light and hope in the form of a fellow prisoner named Ellis ‘Red’ Redding. Red offers Dufresne one of the rarest treasures a man can offer a fellow human being – redemption in the shape of friendship.

The Shawshank Redemption stage adaptation is not a replication of the film, it carves out its own path.

The stage version, adapted by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns, makes a few changes and tweaks from the film but keeps the core story intact.

Violence and brutality is commonplace in the world of ShawshankJack Merriman
Violence and brutality is commonplace in the world of Shawshank

The idea that society dares to contain the spirit of man behind bars is explored through the plight of some of the prisoners incarcerated inside the depraved and inhuman confines of Shawshank. The play also exposes the horror of being abandoned, of being cast adrift upon a lonely sea where men are drowning in mental and physical pain.

However, despite the inhumanity and the abuse of power by those in positions of authority, the play also underlines the grace of the human soul to rise above the mud and dirt of this world and strife for something more sublime and spiritually uplifting.

The actors in this Bill Kenwright touring production have a mammoth task because they stand under the long shadow cast by stars of the original Hollywood film.

The ultimate game in the murky world of Shawshank is to win freedomJack Merriman
The ultimate game in the murky world of Shawshank is to win freedom

The cast and crew rise valiantly to the task and emerge from the powerful residue left by the memorable film to give performances that are distinctive and original.

Joe Absolom (from popular British comedy drama Doc Martin) takes on the role of Dufresne which was played by Tim Robbins in the original film.

Absolom puts his own mark upon the character and within a short space of time he inhabits the essence and spirit of the tormented and tortured prisoner. He makes the audience feel his anguish as he tries to navigate his way through the nightmarish world of Shawshank.

Red, who was so memorably played by a magisterial Morgan Freeman in the Hollywood movie, is here played by Ben Onwukwe (from Eastenders, Coronation Street, and Holby City).

Onwukwe uses his sonorous voice to weave a warm and hypnotic spell that produces a myriad of emotions as the story moves from the depths of despair to hope and light – and redemption – as the drama hurtles towards the climax.

Ben Onwukwe brings a world-weary gravitas to the role of RedJack Merriman
Ben Onwukwe brings a world-weary gravitas to the role of Red

The muted and minimalist art and set designs by Gary McCann allows the senses to home in on the inner tragedies being nursed by the prisoners, and the guards, and there is nothing on the stage to distract from the psychological drama.

The poetical use of music, which includes songs by Johnny Cash, helps to recreate the era in which the tale is set, and the sound – such as dialogue, cells doors opening and slamming, men marching down corridors, etc – is all clear and vibrant, nothing is muffled or distorted.

Chris Davey’s steely blue lighting, with dark pools of eerie shadows, helps to dress and cloak the stage in layers of inky Film Noir ambivalence.

This theatrical adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption is a thought-provoking and atmospheric experience.

VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Shawshank Redemption is now playing at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until Saturday 12 November

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