Originally a 1982 Stephen King novella and then a major film, Shawshank Redemption examines desperation, injustice, friendship and hope behind the bars of a maximum-security prison.
The 1994 film – regularly voted Britain’s favourite movie – starred Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and this Bill Kenwright production, which comes to Derby Theatre for six nights, has also received many plaudits during its 2016 tour.
For anyone unfamiliar with the storyline the performance will be an edge-of–your-seat two hours full of twists and turns. Those who have enjoyed the film in the past will be able to just sit back and enjoy the show.
Despite his protests of innocence, Andy Dufresne is handed a double life sentence for the brutal murder of his wife and her lover.
Incarcerated at the notorious Shawshank jail, 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 and exploit his talents for accountancy, a desperate plan is quietly hatched.
Paul Nicholls (Andy Dufresne) burst onto our screens two decades ago as teenage heart-throb Joe Wicks in the BBC’s EastEnders. Since then, Nicholls has barely been away from primetime TV drama, featuring most recently in the critically acclaimed The C-Word and Grantchester.
Ben Onwukwe (Red) boasts a 30-year stage career having played leading roles with The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court Theatre. TV credits include EastEnders, Coronation Street and 11 years as Recall McKenzie in London’s Burning.
Keeping them in line is Jack Ellis (Warden Stammas) who, in addition to his prestigious stage career, is best-known for his portrayal of villainous prison warden Jim Fenner in popular ITV drama Bad Girls, and as DI Tony Muddyman in Prime Suspect, where he starred alongside Dame Helen Mirren.
For tickets for the show, which runs from October 24, go to derbytheatre.co.uk
How would you sum up the character of Andy?
He’s very pragmatic and has, I think, a beautiful soul. But he’s not just one thing – he’s also a fighter and he refuses to give up.
What do you most enjoy about playing him?
There are a lot of layers to Andy and the thing we have in common is that we are both fighters in our own way and we both refuse to give up. I can also kind of identify with the fact that you can’t be open with everybody. There’s a certain element of him having to keep emotions out of relationships within the prison, which I kind of understand – [laughs] not that I’ve been in prison. But for me he’s almost superhuman. He does crack at some point but he always manages to think clearly under pressure and he’s very intelligent and highly educated. I’m not highly educated, I’m kind of self-taught in a way in various subjects. I never did A-levels. So immediately the fear was ‘I’m not clever or intelligent enough to play this part’, then you realise that’s not true and you don’t have to have a degree and a Masters and a PhD to play the part. [Laughs] You just have to say the lines.
The Shawshank Redemption was a novella, then a film, now a play… Why do you think it enthralls people so much?
I remember my dad ringing me up going ‘Have you seen The Shawshank Redemption?’ and I was like ‘I first saw it years ago and have seen it about 5,000 times!’ He went ‘God, what a film!’ I think it crosses classes. It’s a story about hope and the human spirit, but the thing that transcends all that is ‘It doesn’t matter what class you are’ – working class people and middle class people and upper class people can all relate to being against the system. I’ve done a bit of research and if you look at incarceration rates in the States from the 1970s to the present day they’ve really spiked and around that lots of companies and industries profited from that and are still profiting from it. In terms of Shawshank, we’re all human beings and we all feel trapped in our lives at some point.
Your co-star Jack Ellis has already starred in a highly successful prison drama, namely Bad Girls. Why do you think we are still so drawn to stories of being behind bars?
There’s always that thing of ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. There’s also that element of people running around, getting caught up in their lives and everything seems to be stressful or unappealing – certain people have that outlook on life and it can bring you out of that when you watch a prison drama, [laughs] especially one that’s good. There’s also stuff out there that’s violent and vice-ridden and human beings are attracted to that as well. When I was younger I’d watch things like that for shock value but I didn’t realise they were great films until I was older and saw underneath that to what was going on between the characters and stuff.
You got your start on television but what do you most enjoy about doing theatre?
I actually haven’t done theatre for ten years, because my voice gave out when I was doing Phaedra at the Donmar Warehouse. This is the first time I’ve been back on stage since then so it’s scary but I love being part of a company. When I did Vincent In Brixton it was one of the happiest times of my life because we were all so close. It was like being part of a little family, a little group you belong to, then also going out there every night and getting that reaction. I love doing theatre when it’s good, I step up to the plate and everyone else steps up to the plate and everyone gets on. When I did Festen I absolutely loved it. It was a huge cast and everyone was lovely, but more than anything it was the audiences’ reaction to that play. Some nights it was absolutely amazing. I can’t really describe it and maybe it’s self-indulgent, but it’s a wonderful feeling to be up there. It’s not so great when you come off stage and go ‘Oh my God, I was terrible tonight!’ but when you get lost in the play – or you find yourself in the play, I should say, rather than lost – it’s a magical feeling.
What are you most looking forward to about touring?
I’ve never done a tour before so it’s really exciting. I’m looking forward to spending some time with these guys because they’re all a good laugh, but I’m also looking forward to exploring places. I’m so bad at geography. I know about the world but when it comes to England and Scotland I don’t know where any of these places are. I mean, I know Manchester and Blackpool and Glasgow. And I know Wolverhampton is near Birmingham but I don’t know England that well.
Do you have any pre- or post- show rituals?
I do but I’m not going to tell you what they are. I’m a very superstitious man.
What’s your idea of a great day off on the road?
I’m really looking forward to being in Oxford. I’ve never been but I’ve always wanted to study – although certain things have arisen in my life that prevented it happening. But this play has ignited in me a real thirst for knowledge so I’m looking forward to being around academics and I’ve heard it’s a beautiful place as well. And in general I’m looking forward to exploring places I don’t know about.
Andy’s pin-up is Rita Hayworth. Who would yours be?
It’s got to be Angelina Jolie. Every time I see a picture of her I’m like ‘Oh my God, she’s just unbelievable’. I’ve never met her but I saw her once with her dad walking down the King’s Road in Chelsea years and years ago, but every time I see her in a photo or in a film I’m speechless. She’s such a great actor too and absolutely stunning.