This year’s main production in the Assembly Rooms brings comedian Omid Djalili back to the “legitimate” stage – he’s already played Fagin in Oliver! and an insane doctor in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw — in the Morgan Freeman role of Red, the hardened murderer and Mr Fixit in the Maine County gaol, Shawshanks; Red befriends the innocent banker, Andy Dufresne – Tim Robbins on screen – who is convicted of killing his wife and her lover.
Frank Darabont’s 1994 film, based on a Stephen King novella, is an evergreen on the all-time favourite movie list, so this stage version by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns – first seen a few years ago in Dublin and the West End – inevitably presses too many buttons for it to be a “stand alone” theatre experience.
While Djalili and Kyle Seccr as the lanky Andy make a fascinatingly odd couple, they don’t impart the sense of transcendental uplift in the movie, or its deeply spiritual statement of friendship and survival in adversity.
And although Seccr, who must be seven feet tall, is an astonishing near dead ringer for Robbins, and imparts a similar intellectual fierceness and amiability, Djalili reduces Red to a puff-and-shrug street corner dealer, the sort of guy who can certainly fix the inmates’ illicit luxury items, and Andy’s wall poster of Rita Hayworth, if not grow into a convincing, transforming colleague and confessor. Djalili seizes on any opportunity for sly humour but doesn’t fill out the bigger picture.
That’s partly because, unlike Lenny Henry, he hasn’t developed the technical equipment you need for big stage roles. But Lucy Pitman-Wallace’s production is efficient and well-drilled (though the prison is distinctly under-populated with just ten actors on the stage; there were twenty in the West End), and she allows Djalili his space for crafty manoeuvres.
Gary McCann’s design makes good use of five mobile prison towers and Kevin Treacy’s lighting is ingeniously atmospheric for so harsh and difficult a venue. The brutality and nastiness of the prison is left to Vincenzo Nicoli and Terry Alderton as “the sisters” and Owen O’Neill himself as the warden who involves Andy in his money-laundering activities, ironically making a criminal of him only after he’s been imprisoned.
There’s a touching cameo by Ian Lavender as the old librarian who can’t face parole, and a brief scene when Verdi’s “Dies Irae” shakes us into the requisite horrors of the hell-hole.
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