Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 20th February, 2020
Author Louis Sachar adapts his own wonderful novel for the stage in this engaging production.
It tells the story of hapless young Stanley Yelnats, an unfortunate young man wrongly accused of the theft of a pair of valuable sneakers and is despatched to a detention camp in the middle of the Texan desert, where he and the other inmates have to dig holes in the dirt all day. It’s character building, you see. Stanley believes his family is cursed since the long-ago theft of a gypsy woman’s pig and, as his history unfolds, we tend to agree with him. But Stanley is able to take charge of his own destiny and change his family’s fortune for ever.
James Backway makes an appealing protagonist as Stanley in this Shawshank Redemption for kids. It is against his goodness that we measure the other characters: the other inmates, who have their own code of honour, and the adults, past and present, most of whom ought to know better. Backway is instantly likeable and sympathetic, and while this is an ensemble piece, he is the lynch pin of the story.
Leona Allen also elicits our sympathy as weirdo inmate Zero, while Harold Addo’s X-Ray quickly establishes his status – Characters are drawn with broad strokes, but this helps to keep the story flowing at a fast pace. Elizabeth Twells is superb value as Stanley’s Mom, and especially in her roles as Myra and as Kissing Kate Barlow, the female outlaw of yesteryear. There is strong support from everyone, including Henry Mettle as Armpit, Ashley D Gayle as Sam the Onion Seller (among other roles) and Matthew Romain as Elya Yelnats and Trout Walker (which is his name, not his occupation). Almost stealing the show is Rhona Croker as the callous deliciously evil Warden who has her own agenda. Of course, this being fiction, she gets her comeuppance in glorious fashion, but there is more to Sachar’s tale than that. Every element, every thread of the storyline is woven together into a complex and satisfying tapestry that speaks to us of destiny and free will, with themes of fairness and racism, friendship and honour.
Director Adam Penford is able to serve all the elements of the story well by keeping the staging simple (but not unsophisticated) with single props serving as signifiers for entire locations – a ladle shows we are in the dinner queue, a battered sofa places us in the rec room… He also brings in puppets (courtesy of Matthew Forbes) for the local fauna – the rattlesnake is particularly fine, and so are the dreaded yellow-spotted lizards. Simon Kenny’s design evokes the desert setting and is enhanced by Prima Mehta’s judicious lighting.
The translation of the story from page to stage works excellently, losing none of the book’s humour, heart or humanity, and the production provides top quality entertainment for all the family without being sentimental or, dare I say it, ‘holesome.