Paul T Davies reviews Mike Lew's play Teenage Dick now playing at the Donmar Warehouse, London.
13 December 2019
Bursting onto the Donmar warehouse stage and bringing a hundred innuendos with it, Mike Lew’s vibrant play mashes up teen films based on Shakespeare, (think 10 Things I Hate About You), and Richard III to present a potent and relevant play about our times and power. Relocating Shakespeare’s classic to Roseland High School, disabled student Richard Gloucester plots and schemes to topple his rival Eddie Ivy and become Senior Class President. Whilst Shakespeare’s play has for centuries been seen as star vehicle for an able-bodied actor to perform what is known as “disability drag”, Lew’s script insists that Richard is played by an actor with a disability and that his specific disability is referred to in the text and Buck is also performed by a disabled actor. Thus, whilst being profoundly entertaining, the play also makes theatres and audiences consider the disabled body.
Daniel Monks is astonishingly good in the lead role, not just as Richard Gloucester but also in the Richard III moments of asides to the audience, speeches and knowingness of how society views him. Like all good Richards, he takes us into his confidence, showing how stupid his enemies are as he manipulates him, how easy it is to create fake news, and how shocked he is when his plans begin to unravel out of his control. He is charismatic and mesmerising, it’s hard to take your eyes away from him. Whilst the adaptation condenses some parts into a bit of a stereotype, (the over-invested teacher, the Mean Girl, the Dumb Jock), the cast play with such enthusiasm that those slight flaws are overlooked. Ruth Madeley is excellent as Barbara ‘Buck’ Buckingham, Susan Wokoma hilarious as teacher Elizabeth York, running around trying to educate while disciplining, Callum Adams an attractive, dumb Eddie Ivy, Alice Hewkin a mean and Christian girl, and Siena Kelly shines as dancer Anne Margaret, who, of course, becomes the object of Richard’s love and plotting.
Lew’s script riffs beautifully from Shakespeare’s original, with enough mashing up of the verse to make the audience laugh out loud at the tributes to the Bard. But, more importantly, it is a play for today. Michael Longhurst's excellent direction and the superb High School set by Chloe Lamford, uses technology brilliantly to show the harmful effects of social media. Trolls destroy Anne Margaret, and it is Richard who plants the seed of rumour in the first place, and speeches become quite presidential, reflecting on Trump, both America’s and our own. It’s a zippy, one hour fifty minute ride in which the only thing being mocked, especially in an outstanding dance routine, is the term disability. I thoroughly enjoyed an evening of Teenage Dick. (There you go, just the one pun!)