Review: Teenage Dick (Donmar Warehouse)

In Mike Lew’s darkly comic reimagining of RICHARD III, Shakespeare’s dramatisation of the War of the Roses is relocated to the modern-day American high school, Roseland High. Lew reconceives the bloody battlefields of medieval-England to the high-drama hallways of high school, as many would testify, equal arenas of danger, ambition and misfortune.

TEENAGE DICK is the latest in a long line of adolescent reinventions of the Bard’s work, albeit, up to now, exclusively in the world of film. Among them, 1999’s Ten Things I Hate About You adapted THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, whilst 2006’s She’s the Man revamped TWELFTH NIGHT.

Lew’s version of RICHARD III transposes Shakespeare’s game of thrones to the race to become Senior class president. Frustrated by his physical disability in a world that worships sports prowess, Richard, entering this version of the story as junior class secretary, schemes to rise the ranks of school council against all odds. But, in the essence of Shakespeare’s most famous villain, uses wickedness and cunning to exact hideous revenge on all those he deemed did him wrong.

This production totally belongs to Daniel Monks as the eponymous TEENAGE DICK. Monks relishes in the Machiavellian aspects of the role, bathed in a cartoonish white spotlight, Monks delivers hilarious soliloquies to his captive audience that quickly get us on-side as we become mere spectators to his dark quest for power. However, when the script calls for it, Monks nails the emotional complexities of his character.

Born with hemiplegia (as is Monks), RICHARD is subject to the torment and humiliation of his classmates who have never truly seen the person behind the disability. Although the actions of Richard throughout the play are irredeemable, Monks’ sympathetic take on the role allows us to look deeper into the layers of his character. Richard notes toward the end of the play how, because of his condition, he was never going to be the hero, so why not be the villain? Although misguided, there’s a truth there, and Monks is transcendent in this exploration of character.

Monks is superbly supported by Siena Kelly in the bolstered role of Anne Margaret. At first appearing as the All-American girl that has it all, her time spent with Richard throughout the play produces the undoubted best scenes in Lew’s adaptation. As the defences come down and we see that she’s just as vulnerable as the rest, Kelly nails the many dimensions of the character.

Whilst strengthened by its brilliant young cast, Lew’s script doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. Whilst featuring some brilliantly witty reworkings of Shakespeare’s dialogue (“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer” is transposed to “winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling”), the style of the piece never lands. Particularly towards the end of the play as the narrative hurtles towards its conclusion, Lew chooses to switch-up the tone for a brief interlude, as Anne Margaret provides a meta-commentary of the events of the play. It’s jarring, to say the least, and frustratingly, the production loses its footing as it enters its critical final moments.

Lew’s concept has so much potential to really shine a light on specific issues surrounding disability, adolescence, virtue signalling and gender to name but a few, but the scope is so broad that one issue is never truly developed, resulting in the finished product frustratingly lacking clarity and focus.

Michael Longhurst’s direction, fortunately, serves the production well; really capturing the John Hughes-esque teen-movie aesthetic. Longhurst’s production zips along, it’s 1 hour 45-minute running time making the play feel a breeze. There’s also excellent work in the creative team from sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, and particularly video designer Andrzej Goulding, his work cleverly glimpsing us into the digital lives of Lew’s characters.

Whilst TEENAGE DICK has noticeable flaws, there’s still a lot to admire in this play. The inclusivity and accessibility of the piece is truly admirable, and it features a dazzling star turn by Daniel Monks in the title role. Witty and engrossing, TEENAGE DICK is a genuinely enjoyable retelling of a classic.

RATING: 

TEENAGE DICK runs at London’s Donmar Warehouse to 1st February 2020. Tickets are on sale now.

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