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review: Shawshank penitentiary comes Alive at the Lowry

Stephen King's novel adapted by Owen O'Neil and Dave Jones debuts at the Lowry. Our Showbiz editor Leonie Husselbee attended the opening night:

Image: Shawshank Redemption The Lowry

The Lowry is hosting the Shawshank Redemption this week as their current, among many shows. The minute the audience walked into the theatre they were transported to the cells of Shawshank prison, in Maine.

Directed by David Esbjornson this story of despair, friendship, corruption, self-worth and hope came to life on stage. The tale follows Andy Dufresne, who was once a successful banker but is arrested for the murder of his wife and her lover. Now serving life in prison he befriends a fellow inmate Ellis 'Red' Redding. The flickering rays of hope through the bars of despair in Shawshank prison creates a bond between the prisoners like no other. The story takes place over a 20-year period.

The set was phenomenal, with multiple switches between sets done delicately and flawlessly. Small details such as the photos of butterflies and dream girl Rita Hayworth on Dufresne's wall were beautiful aspects of design. The use of light throughout the production to envision hope and happiness throughout was masterful.

The all-male cast creates dark comedy throughout a seemingly bleak tale. The chemistry between characters such as the 'sisters' Bogs Diamond played by Jay Marsh and Rooster played by Leigh Jones is extremely enjoyable to watch on stage. Rooster's villainous yet infectious laugh is hypnotising and his partner in crime Bogs is the perfect antagonist creating a sense of dread and fear every time he enters the stage.

Ben Onwukwe who plays Ellis 'Red' Redding as a comedic, loveable rogue does more than justice for the character originally played by Morgan Freeman. His engaging monologues and talent for storytelling left the audience hanging on his every word. His feisty, rough and tough attitude differs from the iconic role in the film allowing Onwukwe to become his own iconic version of 'Red'.

Rico played by Jules Brown was a delight to watch, his comedic character has the audience laughing throughout the show. The cleverness of his comedic timing was unmatched, you almost forgot he was playing a convicted murderer! Playing along with Rico's wit Entwhistle played by Owen Oldroyd creates humour perfectly in sync with Rico making them the dynamic comedic duo throughout the show.

The old-timer Librarian Brooksie played by Kenneth Jay was heartwrenching to watch and focused on a key aspect of prisoners you might forget. His fear of the unknown in the outside world and inability to rehabilitate himself into society highlights the isolation and harsh reality of prison, which seems a million miles away from traditional society.

The corrupt officers of Shawshank prison Mark Heenehan as Warden Stammas and Joe Reisig as Hadley as an audience member you love to hate them. The balance of power between the guards and prisoners is highlighted by the tone, stance and overall confidence of these actors on stage. Their ability to create a hierarchy between themselves and the prisoners is breathtaking to experience.

Not forgetting the dim-witted but fiercely loyal character of Tommy Williams played by Coulter Dittman may come late to the stage but makes up for it in his unforgettable performance. The minute he enters the stage his personality shines bright. Dittman made his professional stage debut in this production and he couldn't have performed better, what a joy to watch.

Joe Absolom playing the role of Andy Dufresne took the role in an opposing direction to Tim Robbins who played the character in a loveable underdog-type role. However, in this adapted version Absolom played Dufresne as an arrogant and somewhat egotistical character making it difficult for an audience member to connect and feel for the character on an emotional level.

The portrayal of the prisoners in such a convincing way made it difficult for the relationship between Dufresne and 'Red' to come through as clearly as possible. Their bonding as two contrasting characters is such a beautiful dynamic in the story but it is lost among the big personality of the other prisoners.

It was a pleasurable performance to watch with the themes of despair and hope creating a maze of emotions for the audience to follow. Even with inspiration from the book and the film the production makes the tale its own with lovable characters and a phenomenal set.


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