FringeReview UK 2020
Donmar Warehouse with partners Adam Kenwright, Arts Council England, Barclays, Simmons + Simmons and Delta
Venue: Donmar Warehouse
Festival: FringeReview UK
Directed by Michael Longhurst, with Design by Chloe Lamford and lit by Sinéad McKenna, with Ben and Max Ringham’s Sound Design and Andrej Goulding Video Designer. Claira Vaughan’s the choreographer.
There’s a ferocious logic in Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick that we’ve all grown up with and missed: that nothing seethes like Shakespeare when it comes to teenage bullying, exclusion and ambition.
We’ve had high school R&J, explosively hormonal Dreams and much else. What better than to thrust Richard III into remix? Stack the physical against a character who’s also the smartest and crucially the most vengefully ambitious. Beyond devastating parallels in high school shootings, this is more subtle, more engaged – no simple exclusion and revenge here – and capable, at any moment, of redemption.
Lew’s clear too: he’ll tailor options for differently-abled actors, and indeed Australian Daniel Monks as Richard Gloucester who has hemiplegia is different to the original actor with cerebral palsy. Ruth Madeley’s Barbara ‘Buck’ Buckingham too is a wheelchair user (you might have seen her in Years and Years). But on one thing Lew’s adamant. At least two of the six actors – always Richard and Buck – must be disabled.
This importantly liberates the title character from titular sympathies, and Lew’s constructed a microcosmic world where being senior class president is life-and-death, magnified by adolescence and the glittering power of a school budget too.
Currently that post is taken by All-American Eddie (Callum Adams), a popular sporting hero who’s neither as boneheaded or benign as that chisel-cut mould insinuates. Favourite to succeed him if anyone can is average-but-over-achieving Clarissa Duke, Alice Hewkin’s sassy-vulnerable student with grades on the edge. Added to which Dick gets Susan Wokoma’s empathic, frustrated teacher Elizabeth York to admit that another year of Eddie would drive her mad. They’ve just discussed Machiavelli and Richard’s applies the lesson: let York thinks the idea’s hers, that he run for president.
Directed by Michael Longhurst, Chloe Lamford’s design allows mobility on all fronts from repurposed desks wheeled on and off to a folding upstage, lit by Sinéad McKenna wittily flicked down and up by Richard, with Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design working with Andrej Goulding video design for all the hastas and wildfire social media on three occasions.
We’re given a complex smash-up of Richard III but Lew increasingly goes his own way, with a plot presenting Richard with ways in and out of his ambition. It helps Dick spices danger in throwaway quotes from elsewhere in the canon (tailored for laughs), and as Buck notes he’s always more dangerous when ornate, ‘a creepy renaissance-faire-talkin’ wierdo’. Given her name you expect some alliance, but no, Buck doesn’t believe they can soar ‘beyond nature’s boundaries like some kind of disabled nerd Icarus.’ She won’t un-friend him but there’s never an alliance: Madeley’s Buck brings a subdued gnarly melancholy to the moral centre of the play: the one who like her source character understands Richard but unlike him literally won’t play ball and can’t be bought.
Lew’s repurposed Lady Anne to Anne Margaret, Siena Kelly’s blistering dance-scholarship-bound wannabe, Eddie’s ex. She has everything including a vulnerable heart, so when Richard predates on her as has passport via the school prom, we watch her devastating decision to confide in him, having as she feels disappointed him elsewhere.
Richard’s not just ruthless; Monk conveys the quizzical doubt fleeting over his vaulting ambition. Chemistry between this couple is sizzling: full of gawk, fragile intimacy and danger. Scenes with Anne are the finest, including after the moments when Richard uses his information and things spin destructively out of his control or desire. And they get to dance.
Lew’s deployment of Anne in the last scenes almost steal the show. Her monologue beginning ‘Hi there… I know this is Richard’s story’ whilst dong something else ‘I’m not some small-time girl in a small-minded town’ and litanizes what she’s not against her imagined life, with that refrain ‘So sorry, This isn’t my story… In a minute I’ll be out of your way.’ She isn’t though, she’s asked back as it were. Kelly’s indelible, both as dancer (choreographer’s Claira Vaughan) and intensely vulnerable 17-year-old on the cusp of the miraculous. She both is and isn’t her valedictory: ‘like in a Shakespeare play where the ladies are all a bunch of objects and character foils.’
Naturally it is Richard’s play, just. ‘You always decided who I was before it was mine to choose… So close your eyes and forget about me. You always do anyhow.’ Monk invests that snarl with an end-point eviscerated by all that’s just happened, fizzling to a diminuendo. This absorbing 100-minute piece makes you ponder an even larger narrative. Here though, ambition treads on teenage dreams and their devastation. Amongst an exemplary cast, Madeley Monk and Kelly are outstanding and the latter two make you wince with what might have been.