Review: The Shawshank Redemption at Newcastle Theatre Royal

Review: The Shawshank Redemption at Newcastle Theatre Royal

Review: The Shawshank Redemption – Tuesday 17th January 2023

The beautiful Newcastle Theatre Royal is holding the infamous number one and well loved movie turned play – The Shawshank Redemption throughout this week. This 1994 film starred Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman and was nominated for seven Academy Awards. 

Despite protests of his innocence, Andy Dufresne is handed a double life sentence for the brutal murder of his wife and her lover. Incarcerated at the notorious Shawshank facility, he quickly learns that no one can survive alone. Andy strikes up an unlikely friendship with the prison fixer Red, and things take a slight turn for the better. However, when Warden Stammas decides to bully Andy into subservience and exploit his talents for accountancy, a desperate plan is quietly hatched…Based on Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, this thrilling stage production – starring Joe Absolom (EastEnders, Doc Martin) and Ben Onwukwe (London’s Burning) – examines desperation, injustices, friendship and hope behind the claustrophobic bars of a maximum security facility. (Credit to NTR website)

We were not sure of what to expect from the critically acclaimed movie being turned into a stage show but from my Instagram audience’s response it was destined to be an incredible, eye opening experience. I had heard reviews before even attending that a truly special show would be taking place and they were not wrong.

The Theatre Royal had a busy and exciting buzz as the full audience anticipated the beginning of the play. As the curtains opened we were greeted with a simple, yet believable set. I did wonder how they would make the rest of the settings work as the industrial framework looked very much like the inside of a prison but the use of additional scenery which came down using rigging and drop wires was ingenious. It always surprises me just how much they can fly down on just two wires! Bookshelves, cell walls, movie projectors, butterflies… you name it they had it! These scene changes were incredibly slick and don’t even get me started on the props on stage! The cast had the scene changes down to a fine art – no waiting around for the next scene to start- this is a big bugbear of mine and can often take you out of a story. For a small cast they manoeuvred each scene change meticulously bringing on a lot of different props such as beds, tables, chairs and even washing carts. 

Ben Onwuke opened our show as the beloved Ellis ‘Red’ Redding. He began our journey with a powerful monologue and mirroring the movie he was our narrator for the evening, giving meaning to scenes which could leave some feeling confused. At first I did find his mic a little quiet but they seemed to sort the sound out pretty swiftly as this did not interfere throughout the rest of the show. The show opened in an interesting way with three inmates naked taking centre stage with only a pile of clothes to cover their modesty and it cannot be easy to stand on stage fully nude! I did hear some shock from the audience at this point.

Ben Onwuke throughout, had to be one of my highlights. He delivered his comedic timing perfectly and gave real sincerity to his role. I felt gripped by him everytime he opened his mouth. A true professional and he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Red was my favourite character in the movie and he truly did him justice- a loveable rogue who really fights for what he believes. 

I loved the use of music from the beginning of the show to aid the opening and scene changes. The use of the 50s and 60s music was well chosen and felt fitting as it changed as their years went by in prison. My personal highlights were Twist and Shout by The Beatles and Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come which they used in a very poignant scene change. I really enjoyed this element and wasn’t expecting it from this play.

Our Andy Dufresne for the night was played by the incredibly talented Joe Absolom. The last show I watched Joe in was The Bay on ITV and could not believe that this was the same actor.  He had every detail nailed down from the accent to the hunched shoulders to that awkward stance. Andy in the movie was ever the unusual, shy and uncomfortable man that Joe had managed to successfully deliver on our stage. The way he moved across the stage was art – he truly made Andy come to life. 

The rest of the small cast were also outstanding and I applaud their attention to detail especially in the scenes where the other inmates were all together. It was really believable that they were in jail with their raucous noise and behaviour. We particularly enjoyed the physical acting from our ‘Sisters’ – the notorious baddies – Bogs Diamond played by Jay Marsh and Rooster played by Leigh Jones. The pull ups and shadowboxing in the background did not go unnoticed alongside the physical violence they had to portray – definitely not the easiest feat. I was looking to see if the ear really had been bitten off!

This play does portray some extremely difficult viewing just like the movie and may not be for the faint hearted or easily triggered. In the first half, we are exposed to some sexual violence however, I must praise the directors upon dealing with these scenarios in such a careful, delicate way without diverting too much from the original story. There is a way of showing a concept carefully and discretely letting the audience get the inference for themselves rather than having to make a big show about it all.

In the second half, we bear witness to two deaths and these are also shown with great respect and reverence – a much more 2023 approach than the 1994 original. After one of the death scenes (no spoilers here just in case) the small cast began to sing Rock of Ages and carried the body off stage. Their voices were stunning, blending together perfectly and what a shame they hadn’t sung longer. 

At half time there was a rapturous applause from the audience and looking around the room everyone was overjoyed at what they had just witnessed. I usually find during performances you may hear people rustling or chatting but throughout you could have heard a pin drop. A true testament to just how engaging the whole show was. 

The second half brought us more monologues and narratives from the cast. I loved how when this happened the whole cast were frozen behind like you had just paused the whole set. The use of levels and the whole stage was really well thought out too. Bravo once again to the directing team.

One thing that set the show apart was the use of lighting throughout. I don’t know how they managed it but we could all tell when it was Summer and when it was Winter. Another great addition to the simple staging to really portray the full story. The beaming lights shone during the ‘yard’ scenes and the Christmas scene was filled with bright white lights. I loved the scene where they were watching the Rita Hayworth movie too with the flickering lights to depict a running movie. Genius! 

In the second act, our resident evil character of Warden Stammas, played by Mark Heenehan really got to shine. He actually gave me chills at just how evil he was. Pure perfection as a baddie- I would not like to get on the wrong side of him! Big props to Joe Reisig as Hadley and Owen Oldroyd as Entwistle for their equally dislikable prison guard roles too. As much as we love to hate the baddies, they really were perfect for these roles.

I was really shocked at how much comedy was put across through the play compared to the movie and it gave a really great audience reaction too. Red and Rooster provided us with many laughs alongside Jules Brown’s role as Rico stealing the saucy pages from Lady Chatterley’s lover. Apart from the comedy, the story rarely deviated from the film which I really appreciated as a huge fan of the original. 

Finally, I adored the symbolism used throughout the whole production. The concept of the butterflies giving freedom right up until the very end. Not everything needs to be shown on stage and I like the fact that everyone can take something different away from a production. The scene of the beaming orange light and the beautiful butterfly with Andy before his escape will truly stick with me forever. Freedom is ours if we wish to have it. 

For a small all male cast I was blown away by this production and just how intense and mammoth it felt. The final scene made me audibly sob, so moving seeing the friends embrace each other after years of torment and hurt. I had chills down my spine. The audience gave a standing ovation and rightly so. 10/10 – the best piece of work I have seen in a very long time.

The Shawshank Redemption plays at Newcastle Theatre Royal from Tue 17 – Sat 21 Jan 2023. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 0191 232 7010. Read the preview of the show here. Read more news from this venue by clicking Newcastle Theatre Royal. See other Theatre Reviews also.

Review written by Robyn McGough. (Tickets were gifted to attend)

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