Adapting classic movies to the stage isn't a good idea. At their worst they don’t work, while at their best they get by without improving on the original. Think Rain Man, The Graduate, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Swimming with Sharks and All About My Mother, to name a handful. The only recent examples I can think of that really worked were The 39 Steps and Brief Encounter, as both reinvented their source material strictly in terms of the stage.
Of course, musicals adapted from original screenplays sometimes do succeed—like Hairspray and, surprisingly, Dirty Dancing, a bland scene-by-scene copy of the movie without the star power. Go figure.
Alas, the stage version of The Shawshank Redemption isn't a musical, but a diluted replay of the iconic film.
On stage, the action takes place entirely in Shawshank Prison, in an all-purpose set reminiscent of the backdrop for Elvis Presley's “Jailhouse Rock” number in the film of the same name. But rather than contribute a valuable sense of claustrophobia to the proceedings, it just draws attention to the fact that no one on stage ever seems to age. And even though the narrative clearly indicates the passing of time, exactly what that time period is remains obscure.
Another fundamental problem in stage adaptations of classic films is the casting. It goes without saying that Kevin Anderson as Andy, the banker serving life for a double murder he did not commit, and Reg E. Cathey as Red, a fellow lifer for whom he develops a mutual trust and respect, are not as compelling as Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in the film. They're not bad, and even vaguely resemble their counterparts, but neither brings anything to the roles to make you forget the originals.
That said, the events depicted in Stephen King's novella—as put on stage by Owen O'Neill and Dave Johns—still manage to grip in a visceral way, juggling the clichés of the prison genre in which we root for the good guys (ironically, the prisoners) and long for the comeuppance of the baddies (the brutal warden and a prison guard). The audience on the night I attended the show were clearly absorbed and registered their approval with a resounding ovation.
The stage solution to the film's terrific denouement, which takes place outside the prison confines, is to have Red narrate what happens after Andy's dramatic escape and his own release, which, of course, can never be as compelling as seeing the action for yourself. But it does allow the director, Peter Sheridan, his one truly original moment when, in the final curtain call for the two leading actors, the one question still hanging over the narrative is finally answered.
In the end, though, the question that has to be asked is, why bother?