Tag Archives: David Esbjornson

Inside Story


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 27th September, 2016


Stephen King’s story spawned a film, that has proved to be the nation’s favourite, and now this stage adaptation by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns.  Without the scale of the cinematic version, O’Neill and Johns focus on a select group of inmates, showing us their humanity along with the brutality and privations of the system.  I saw it when it toured last year and now it’s doing the rounds again with a new cast, I am more than happy to see it again.

Red is our narrator – Ben Onwukwe channelling Morgan Freeman in a performance that exudes warmth.  He introduces us to the hotheaded Latino Rico (Adam Henderson Scott), bullies Bogs and Rooster (Jeff Alexander and Sean Croke) and old lag Brooksie (Andrew Boyer in a heartbreaking portrayal of institutionalisation).  Into their midst comes Andy Dufresne, a man wrongfully convicted of the murders of his wife and her lover.  Andy is reserved, decent and kind, but this façade conceals a calculating mind.  Former EastEnders star Paul Nicholls gives us a Dufresne that is markedly contrasted with the larger-than-life characters around him, in a quiet, almost underplayed performance – until you see the intensity beneath the surface.  Dufresne is almost a Messiah figure to the others – and we all know how Messiah’s get treated.

Daniel Stewart impresses as the vicious screw Hadley but the villain of the piece is the god-bothering governor, Warden Stammas – a commanding Jack Ellis, oozing evil.

Director David Esbjornson handles moments of tension well, leavening them with humour, while Chris Davey’s lighting aids and abets Gary McCann’s all-purpose set to create different spaces within the prison.  There is violence and brutality, depicted and implied and the escape, when it happens, is presented symbolically – a beautiful moment.  As with last time, I can’t help noting how sparsely populated this prison is.  Pre-recorded voices go some way to give the impression of hordes of inmates off-stage – perhaps something could be done with local volunteers at each venue to flesh out scenes in the exercise yard, for example… I don’t know.

That aside, the play provides a compelling evening, even if you’ve read the book or seen the film countless times.  And the ending packs a punch right to the feels, as King reminds us that hope is a good thing and sometimes it pays off.




Prison Visit


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 28th September, 2015


Stephen King’s novella gave rise to one of the most popular films of all time. For this new touring production, Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns return to the film’s source material and adapt it for the stage. Film fans will notice differences – inevitable, given the differing natures of the art forms. That said, O’Neill and Johns do a bang up job with this story of prison life.

Red (Patrick Robinson) is our part-time narrator in this sparsely populated penitentiary (over-crowding is no problem in Shawshank!) introducing us to a lively bunch of characters, not all of them pleasant. There is Leigh Jones’s Rooster who laughs like a maniacal drain every chance he gets. Rooster is teamed with Bogs (Kevin Mathurin) to form a pair who stop at nothing to assert their dominance among the men. We met Brooksie (Ian Barritt) an old lag completely institutionalised by his lengthy sentence, and Lady Chatterley fan Rico (Declan Perring).   Then newcomer Andy Dufresne arrives, wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover. Dufresne stands out – Ian Kelsey gives him a stillness and steadiness, making him a quietly compelling figure among the other, larger-than-life inmates.

Adaptor Owen O’Neill himself plays the slimy Warden Stammas, backed up by brutal guard Hadley (Joe Reisig). It’s an excellent ensemble, with Robinson and Kelsey as very strong leads. Also making an impression is George Evans as young convict Tommy Williams.

The story is episodic in nature, building up a picture of prison life and charting Andy Dufresne’s growing stature among the inmates, the guards (for whom he files tax returns) and the Warden (for whom he cooks the accounts).   Unless the characters mention it, we don’t really get a sense of the passage of time but nevertheless the story builds to an emotional climax that still brings moistness to the eye.

Director David Esbjornson mixes naturalistic staging with symbolic – Andy’s escape (oops, spoiler) is beautifully represented and, supported by Chris Davey’s lighting, which marks out cells in sharp rectangles, and Dan Samson’s sound, which hints at hordes of prisoners somewhere off-stage, hits all the right notes.

Shawshank Prison is well worth a visit.

Andy Dufresne (Ian Kelsey) makes his move. (Photo: Mark Yeoman)

Andy Dufresne (Ian Kelsey) makes his move. (Photo: Mark Yeoman)

Chauffeur So Good

Derby Theatre, Monday 19th November, 2012

Before it was an Oscar-winning film, this simple story of a fading Southern matron and her ageing black chauffeur was a play. This touring revival is a straightforward but stylishly presented production of Alfred Uhry’s script, containing two magnetic performances by Gwen Taylor as Miss Daisy and Don Warrington as Hoke. The third member of the cast is Ian Porter as Daisy’s son ‘Boolie’ – it is he who sets the plot in motion by recruiting Hoke when his mother proves she is no longer able to drive herself around.

At first, Hoke meets with resistance from the proud old woman – it is a week before she relents and allows him to take her to the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. After that initial outing, a slow thawing begins and in a series of scenes that dip into their lives over a period of twenty-odd years, we see the bond that has formed between the pair in their declining years. “I was never prejudiced” is Miss Daisy’s constant refrain, usually as a preface to some declaration about “They All” doing this or that.

She learns the error of her ways but it’s not a complete conversion – Uhry’s script keeps away from the saccharine and the mawkish, deftly depicting the war of wills between the characters with gentle humour and the occasionally touching moment. The play is set against the (projected) backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement – Miss Daisy and Hoke are kind of a microcosmic representation of this. The personal is political, after all.

Gwen Taylor plays Miss Daisy as strong but with increasing fragility. Don Warrington’s Hoke is sardonic, patient and as proud as his elderly employer. Ian Porter matches them for authenticity and characterisation. Director David Esdbjornson keeps transitions slick – the staging is simplistic with Wendall K Harrington’s projections clarifying locations and illustrating the wider context of the action.

It’s a charming and funny 90 minutes that touches your heartstrings rather than punching you in the guts. The world has come a long way since Martin Luther King told us about his dream, and still has a way to go yet, but for me the starkest aspect of the play is the physical and/or mental decline that awaits us (if we’re lucky!) and the importance of companionship along life’s road. This may sound depressing but like Hoke the chauffeur, this show will give you a lift.