Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Theatre review: Teenage Dick

A dick joke about Richard III? Who would do such a thing?

Michael Longhurst's second directing gig at the Donald and Margot Warehouse since taking over as Artistic Director is Mike Lew's take on the once-ubiquitous teen movie sub-genre of Shakespeare plays (or other classics) relocated to American High Schools. Richard III becomes Teenage Dick and the role of Senior Class President is the crown a physically disabled anti-hero will do anything to get. In a story that for much of its running time is savagely funny, Richard Gloucester (Daniel Monks) has been bullied and marginalised throughout his school years because of his hemiplegia (apparently Lew makes it a condition of staging the play that this role and that of his sidekick Buck be played by disabled actors, with the script adapted to match their real disabilities.) Quarterback and Junior Class President Eddie (Callum Adams) has been his chief tormentor, and Richard hatches a plot to steal the upcoming election out from under him.

Teacher Elizabeth York (an underused Susan Wokoma) is so sick of Eddie and the football team running the student council she's willing to bend a few rules to help Richard get his way, on the understanding her drama club gets a good slice of the next year's budget.

In a school society ruthlessly arranged into cliques, “Buck” Buckingham (Ruth Madeley,) who uses a wheelchair, is Richard’s only friend by default, and he manipulates her into helping get his other rival, Clarissa Duke (Alice Hewkin) kicked out of the race. But the main part of his plan involves Anne Margaret (Siena Kelly,) one of the most popular girls in school, and Eddie’s ex-girlfriend. If he can guilt-trip her into taking him to the Sadie Hawkins Dance, he can finally move up the social ladder. The plot starts as a pretty straightforward comic revisiting of Shakespeare’s version, the six characters’ names overtly referencing who they represent (in fact the script’s best gag doesn’t make it to the stage, as it’s only in the cast list that we find out the Edward IV expy is called “Eddie Ivy.”) It's inevitably a simplified version (it is, after all, an American Dick so it's not surprising if some of it's been removed,) but Richard's power plays and alliances feel familiar.

But it’s when he actually succeeds in his plans with Anne Margaret that Richard finds a plot from 1593 can’t necessarily play out in the same way in the 21st century: As she teaches him some dance steps the two develop, if not necessarily a romance, an unexpected friendship that leads her to confide in him. Suddenly we’re left to wonder if Richard will follow the plan to the bitter end like his namesake, or choose a different path. These scenes between the pair – culminating in a dance routine, which Claira Vaughan’s choreography builds around incorporating Monks’ specific disabilities rather than working around them – are some of the play’s best, but they do also send the story off in a muddled direction.

The biggest issue for me is that I don’t feel like I have a clear idea of how Lew views Richard: Obviously he never follows Shakespeare’s (most likely politically expedient at the time) lead in accepting that the character’s physical deformities are a sign of inner corruption, instead making it clear from the start that the bullying he’s experienced all his life has twisted his personality (personal revenge against Eddie is a much greater part of this Richard’s motivation than Shakespeare’s.) But as the relationship with Anne Margaret offers the possibility of redemption there’s a few too many heel-face turns and sharp changes of tone in the service of plot twists; I did get a sense of Richard being conflicted but I think that was coming more from Monks’ performance than the script.

The feeling of Lew not knowing what he wants to focus on comes across elsewhere as well: Teenage Dick is comparatively short but is packed with enough themes and ideas to overload a 3-hour epic: Richard’s speech tending to take in Elizabethan verse, and the other characters’ fourth wall-breaking references to this and his soliloquising, are a funny recurring gag but don’t go anywhere. At one point Elizabeth calls the Principal’s office “the tower” in a way that suggests even she doesn’t know why and that the story she’s in is controlling her words, but this hint that the play will shoot off in an even more metatheatrical direction is a red herring. And Anne Margaret eventually gets a soliloquy of her own that bemoans the marginalising of women in the original; a nice sentiment but it feels like a late attempt to redress a similar imbalance in this version.

Taking its cue from Monks’ rapid-fire delivery, the production is generally a very fast-paced and energetic one, which probably doesn’t help with the feeling of being assaulted by, mostly interesting, ideas from all directions, most of which end up in dead ends. For all that I’ve had a lot to pick apart about it Teenage Dick is generally a strong couple of hours, fascinating at times and frustrating at others, with the feeling that sparks could fly from the stage at any time. It’s an entertaining, original muddle, but a muddle all the same.

Teenage Dick by Mike Lew is booking until the 1st of February at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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