Review - Teenage Dick at the Donmar Warehouse
In October, the Trafalgar Studios hosted a West End revival of the late Peter Nicols's play 1967 play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg that revolves around a married couple caring for their severely disabled daughter. The production broke new ground by the casting of Storme Toolis, who herself has cerebral palsy, in the title role. As I wrote in my review: "It puts the disability at the centre of the play in plain sight, and we can't look away. Nor, watching this finely-tuned production, would we want to."
And affirming that theatre is no longer just a question of what stories get told but who gets to tell them now is the London premiere of Teenage Dick, which premiered last year at New York's Public Theatre, in which playwright Mike Lew specifies in the published script, "Cast disabled actors for Richard and Buck. They exist and they're out there... In no case should able-bodied actors 'play' disabled."
In the New York production, the title character was originated by an actor who, like the one in the recent production of Joe Egg, has cerebral palsy. In London, he is being played now by a young London-based Australian actor called Daniel Monks who has hemiplegia. And it matters, not just because of the question of opportunities being newly afforded to disabled actors, but also because the play is about outsider status and classroom bullying which become amplified when the stakes are palpably increased.
It may be refreshing, as it is currently on Broadway, for a disabled actor to be playing a non-disabled role as Ali Stroker is proving so gloriously as Ado Annie in the current production of Oklahoma!, achieving her mobility via a wheelchair that allows her to engage in intricate choreography. But, this play provokes an even more urgent and specific conversation around visibility for both the actors and the characters they are playing, with Monks joined by the wheelchair-bound Ruth Madeley as 'Buck' Buckingham.
Given that the play is an energetic, youthful riff on the themes of Shakespeare's Richard III - relocated to a contemporary American high school gym, where Richard is running for high school president - it also burrows deep into questions of ambition, school politics and dating, and the influences of social media inside and outside the classroom. It reminded me, in part, of a non-musical Dear Evan Hansen.
I was immensely relieved that, despite its cheeky, teasing title, this was nothing like the search criteria someone might enter on Pornhub, but a challenging play that asks urgent questions and, in Mike Longhurst's intimate and engrossing production, provides a lot of food for thought.