PLAYS and films that look at the lives of people who are imprisoned for being involved in a murder invariably have audience members either repeatedly laughing at their behaviour or keeping straight faces.
The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 film version of Stephen King's 1983 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption which was set in a prison, was a global box office hit, starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins.
But a new stage adaptation by comedians Owen O'Neill and Dave Johns, that premiered in Dublin in 2009, has been praised for the way it mixes serious elements and comedy to make the characters very real people.
So it is pleasing that a Newcastle company, Hunter Drama, will give the play its Australian premiere, with four performances at the Civic Playhouse between July 29 and 31.
Hunter Drama, which trains young people to be actors, has a mix of professional and other adult actors, and senior acting students aged from the late teens to early 20s, playing the prisoners and those who guard them.
The three professional actors - Ben Louttit, Carl Gregory, and Patrick Campbell - play very different characters.
Ben Louttit is Andy Dufresne, a softly spoken, intelligent banker in his early 30s, who claims to have been falsely accused of murdering his two-timing wife and her golf-pro lover, leading to him being given two consecutive life sentences and making him determined to prove his innocence, or else escape.
Carl Gregory is Red (proper name Ellis Boyd Redding), in his early 40s, who is the narrator and prison fixer.
He seems to be able to get other inmates what they want by using charms and sales techniques he developed in his early adulthood to enable him to smuggle contraband into the jail, but he can't get himself released from his 35-year prison sentence.
And Patrick Campbell is Brooksie (full name Brooks Hatlen), an ageing (about 55) convict who runs the prison library.
He was a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, but had a passion for playing poker, losing everything and subsequently killing his wife and daughter in a drunken rage.
The show also features other adult actors who have been involved in theatre for many years.
Luke Power is the Shawshank prison warden Gregory Stammas, aged in his 40s, who demands that he be referred to as Warden Stammas.
It soon becomes evident that while he invariably has a small grin on his face he is a coward, bully and cheating hypocrite who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Josh Hayward is Bryan Hadley, the head prison guard, who has no sublety in his behaviour and words, and is told by the demanding Stammas that he has to watch his back at all times.
The other characters are: Bogs Diamond (Adam Soldo), a psychopath who is described in the original book as having "a brooding expression", but is not stupid, and, while he is feared throughout the prison, has some charm.
Matt Entwistle (Austin Cooper) is a guard who tries to be a tough guy but, when he can, goes easy on the prisoners.
Tommy Williams (Charlie Edwards), who, in his early 20s, is the prison's youngest convict, and was addicted to stealing expensive cars.
Rico (Hugo Brennan), who married young and had seven kids, was jailed for robbing a gas station.
Rooster (Jack Andrew) has been a drug addict since he was young and wants to remain in the prison because it gives him a status he wouldn't have otherwise had.
Dawkins (James McCaffrey) is a criminal gang member who murdered two of his former associates to get their money.
Pinky (Matthew Collins) is a young prisoner who watches the others intently.
The Shawshank Redemption, which is directed by James Chapman, has performances at the Civic Playhouse nightly at 7.30pm from Thursday, July 29, to Saturday, July 31, plus a 2pm Saturday matinee.
Tickets: A reserve, $39, concession and student $33.
To make a booking, call: 4929 1977.
Ladies in Black. Brunker Community Theatre and Novocastrian Players, at the Brunker Theatre, Adamstown. Ends July 31.
Things I Know To Be True. The Very Popular Theatre Company, at the Civic Playhouse. Ends July 24.
Both these productions are certainly worth seeing, as they show how adept Newcastle theatre teams are in choosing stage works and performing them.
Ladies in Black, an Australian musical adapted from Madeleine St John's novel The Women in Black, and directed by Carrie Manen, has a girl who has just finished high school, getting a temporary job in the women's clothing department renowned Sydney department store while she waits for advice of her HSC results, with her relationships with family members and the store employees being amusingly brought out as the action moves, against a well-designed set, from rooms in the store to those in people's homes.
Things I Know To Be True, which likewise has an engaging mix of drama and comedy, and also was written by an Australian playwright, Andrew Bovell, has watchers on the edge of their seats as they observe the words and actions in the year of a mother and father, and their two sons and two daughters who are in the process of moving into adulthood.
And the actors - parents Rob Dilley and Jan Hunt, and children James Chapman, Rachel Jackett, Jay Wood, and Georgia Vaughn - make this a gripping show under Daniel Stoddart's direction.