Recall to prison taken as Red

The Shawshank Redemption is at the Lyceum, Sheffield, from Monday to Saturday
The Shawshank Redemption is at the Lyceum, Sheffield, from Monday to Saturday
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Once upon a time it was cinema that plundered the theatre by putting plays on screen but the pattern has been reversed in recent years, the latest example being The Shawshank Redemption.

The play sells on the popularity of the 1994 movie which was nominated for seven Oscars and regularly figures on lists of the nation’s favourite film.

It may be because it has redemption in its title

The Shawshank Redemption follows Andy Dufresne, a banker handed a double life sentence for murder and incarcerated in the notorious Shawshank penitentiary.

Continuing to protest his innocence, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with the prison fixer, Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, while sadistic Warden Stammas attempts to bully Andy into subservience and exploit his talents for accountancy. And so a desperate plan is quietly hatched.

The movie starred Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman whose roles are taken on stage by Paul Nicholls, once Eastenders heart throb Joe Wicks, and Ben Onwukwe who for 10 years was Stuart ‘Recall’ McKenzie in London’s Burning and has also had stints on EastEnders, Coronation Street and Doctors.

The play, which takes place entirely within the prison, is actually based on Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, from which the screenplay differs in a few respects, points out Onwukwe.

But clearly audiences will be attracted by the movie whose appeal seems to have grown over the years.

“It acquired a cult following,” agrees Onwukwe. “It gets under the skin of people. Maybe it’s because it has redemption in its title and being redeemed is a part of human existence.”

The play also has strong themes of desperation, injustice, friendship and hope behind the claustrophobic prison bars.

Did the shadow of Morgan Freeman inhibit him? “I spent a lot of time trying to weigh up a balance of that part that is Ellis Redding and the importance of retaining something of Morgan Freeman and taking it in a different way,” he says. “You cannot exclude Morgan Freeman. I have tried to take the essence of that actor and sound a little like him, the same tone in his voice, but make the character a little less laconic.

“I chose to explore his character. When we first meet him he has done 10 or 12 years so he is institutionalised. He is still one of the pack of rather feral blokes although he is slightly distanced from them as a fixer or wheeler-dealer.”

Because of London’s Burning in particular people have a picture of him as a cockney actor, he says, but he has done lots of other things over a 30-year stage career which has taken in The RSC and the Royal Court Theatre.

Onwukwe, who has never been to Sheffield before, is keen to say: ““The tour has taken us from Windsor as far up as Glasgow and we have all found the further north we go audiences are more giving and energised. I’m not sure why, maybe southerners are more blasé about theatre.”