The first time I read King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, I remember being mostly underwhelmed. I was probably around 15, which was when I discovered Stephen King and read most of his earlier works and had grown accustomed to him as the Master of Horror. Having avidly read his lurid tales of haunted hotels, rabid hounds and killer clowns, I approached Different Seasons expecting much of the same. Therefore, for 15 year old me, the story of wrongly accused Andy Dufresne fell massively short of the mark.
I didn’t think of Andy or Red for many years until I encountered Frank Darabont’s adaptation. I couldn’t tell you when or where I saw it, I suspect it was simply part of my pursuit of all things King and probably in my early 20s. I’d learnt to accept that, sometimes, my favourite author didn’t write out and out horror and that was OK. Simply put, I loved it. It is a fantastic film, poignant and beautiful, Robbins and Freeman so perfectly Andy and Red (despite being hugely miscast from a visual point of view). Like for many others, it instantly became a firm favourite.
Therefore it was with equal parts curiosity and trepidation that I persuaded my parents to get tickets for the stage adaptation. Trepidation turned into outright fear when I discovered the stage adaptation was the work of two stand up comedians, Dave Johns and Owen O’Neill. Yeah their background included roles in Twelve Angry Men but really? Still, as we were in the theatre it was a little late to do much but sit back and hope for the best. However, as Red warns, “hope is a dangerous thing.”
Would I be underwhelmed as I was the first time I read the novella, or would Johns and O’Neill do it justice?
Unlike in the case of poor Andy Dufresne, justice was indeed done. The stage version balances the horrific nature of being incarcerated with moments light humour. When Red explains, in a matter of fact tone, that gang rape is something that happens in prisons everywhere, it is chilling and, in some ways, more horrible than the implied rape that just took place in the darkness side stage. However, it is balanced out by carefully managed episodes of comic relief. The play is neither dark and oppressive, nor hysterically funny and yet it is close to both. It’s hard to fully explain. You really need to see if for yourself.
If that’s not enough to convince you, then go and see it for the pairing of Ian Kelsey and Patrick Robinson who are as much Andy and Red as Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman were. Like in the film, the character Red narrates a lot of the story. I remember thinking right at the start that Robinson had a hard, potentially unenviable, task ahead of him. To follow in the footsteps of someone as great as Freeman, to make the audience forget about his Red and think only of yours. Phew! That was the last time I thought about Morgan Freeman and I don’t remember once comparing Kelsey to Robbins. But, it’s not just down to them, the whole performance is well cast and brilliantly staged. Like I said, justice is certainly done, it is done to the original novella which Johns and O’Neill returned to for their adaptation, but also to Darabont’s vision. I’m happy to sit this alongside King and Darabont as a job well done and a story well told.
The Shawshank Redemption runs until the 31st October.