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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Teenage Dick
Donmar Warehouse Theatre  Winter 2019-2020

This is a play that isn't about what it says it's about. And that's no bad thing. It lures us into expecting one thing and then pleasantly surprises us with something even better.

Set in an American high school, it announces from the very first line ('Now that the winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling...') that it's going to be a parody of Shakespeare's Richard III.

School outcast Richard is determined to defeat football star Eddie to become class president, eliminating anyone else who is in his way.

But somewhere along that path playwright Mike Lew pulls the action and the characters away from Shakespeare, taking them into new and intriguing psychological territory.

Unlike Shakespeare's Crookback, young Richard is not a natural villain. He has to work himself up to righteous anger and determination, and is as surprised as we are to find himself repeatedly wavering.

His gal-pal Buck, while generally on his side, keeps suggesting that he bypass dirty tricks and fight Eddie fair and square, and Richard does give it a try. Part of his plot involves stealing Eddie's ex-girlfriend Anne, and Richard is confused to discover both that she's quite a nice girl and that he is inclined to be a nice guy with her.

Richard is pulled back and forth between the temptations of virtue and villainy, and while I won't give away where he ends up, that internal battle is psychologically believable and dramatically involving.

(As the play progresses, you may spot that its real resemblance is to the musical Dear Evan Hansen. Both are about teenage losers lured by the unexpected possibility of power and love, and confused by the moral questions those rewards raise.)

By the playwright's insistence, the roles of Richard and Buck are to be played by actors with actual physical disabilities.

Here Daniel Monks has the partial paralysis of a brain injury, while Ruth Madeley is in a wheelchair, and in a programme note Mike Lew reports making occasional alterations to the text (originally written for an actor with cerebral palsy) to better fit them.

There is no question that the actors bring a special authenticity to their roles, as well as particular dramatic power. An emotional climax of the play comes when Richard has occasion to demonstrate how much physical ability he has within his limits, and the moment is the actor's triumph as well as the character's.

But entirely apart from his disability, Monks captures Richard's mix of youthful exuberance, anger and confusion as he discovers emotional and moral depths he had not expected in himself.

As Anne, Siena Kelly is touching and convincing as one of the school's golden Cool Kids navigating the discovery that she too is more emotionally complex and mature than she and we suspected.

Shakespeare's Richard III is one of his greatest plays, and its portrait of a witty and determined malignant genius is in no way threatened by Mike Lew.

But at this time in this place, a play about a boy discovering his capacity for both good and bad, and trying to decide between them, makes for an engrossing and very satisfying drama.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Teenage Dick - Donmar Theatre 2019
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