How do you go about adapting for the stage one of the best-loved films of the past 25 years, if not all time?
First and foremost, the performances from the cast need to be top-notch and it's also important not to attempt to recreate exactly the big-screen version, while still retaining the emotion and relationships. So did this new version from Bill Kenwright, adapted by Owen O'Neill and Dave Johns and directed by David Esbjornson, manage it? Almost.
Some may think that it's unfair to compare the two, but the film is so ubiquitous and a good number of people will probably have been attracted to the play because of the Hollywood version. By chance, I had happened to re-watch the movie two or three weeks ago, which probably didn't help me get into last night's performance as a production in its own right. Having said that, anyone who adapts something this well-known has to be aware that the audience will make comparisons.
For those that aren't familiar with the plot, Andy Dufresne is handed a double life sentence for the brutal murder of his wife and her lover, despite continually protesting his innocence. Incarcerated at the notorious Shawshank prison, he learns that no one can survive alone and strikes up an unlikely friendship with the prison fixer Red, meaning things take a slight turn for the better. However, when Warden Stammas decides to bully Andy into subservience and exploit his talents for accountancy, a desperate plan is quietly hatched.
Overall, it was an excellent production, bolstered by brilliant performances from both the leading men, Ian Kelsey and Patrick Robinson, who will be pretty well-known to television viewers, the former for roles in Emmerdale, Casualty and Doctors, and the latter for Casualty and Strictly Come Dancing.
They were very well supported by a relatively modest supporting cast of 10, with the stand-outs being Ian Barritt as Brooksie and George Evan's second-half arrival as Tommy Williams. Owen O'Neill was superb too, creating a Warden Stammas who was just as slimy and reprehensible as he needs to be.
True to life, there was plenty of humour, probably more so than in the film, but that did not detract from the power and poignancy of some of the grittier, more unpleasant moments. The emotion was pitched just right, particularly when the inmates were confronted with the deaths of their friends.
The only way in which the performance fell down was that the second half was far stronger than the first. The second was very good indeed as the plot really starts to motor, but prior to the interval, when the characters are being established, the scenes are short and disparate - more a series of vignettes of prison life. There was merit to this approach - and I can't think of a better way of doing it - but it affected the flow, although the transitions between scenes were cleverly done with a good use of appropriate music.
However, this did not detract from The Shawshank Redemption's essence and its message of hope, even in the face of adversity, violence and fear. I don't think many in the packed-to-the-rafters auditorium can have left without being inspired by all that is uplifting about the story - you better get busy living or get busy dying.
The Shawshank Redemption is at the Theatre Royal Newcastle until Saturday (October 24). Tickets, from £14, from www.theatreroyal.co.uk or 08448 11 21 21.