In the long history of Shakespeare’s Richard III in performance, able bodied actors have almost always taken on this epic role; Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Laurence Olivier, Antony Sher to name a few. And for more than 400 years, it’s a play that has shaped cultural expectations about disability on the stage. So, there’s genuine reason to be excited that Mike Lew’s new ‘version,’ transported into a modern-day high school, not only insists on disabled actors for Dick (Richard) but interestingly for Buck (Buckingham) too. In this case Daniel Monks has hemiplegia and Ruth Madeley is a wheel-chair user. As Lew’s writes in his forward, ‘In the process of dismantling its Shakespearean starter material, we begin to dismantle our biases.’

We meet clever, unpopular 17-year-old Dick turning up late to his English class at Roseland High School. With an ability to quote Machiavelli word for word and an awareness of the power of the pity card, he can already wrap his English teacher round his finger, blaming his lateness on the difficulty of crossing the campus. But troubled Dick is desperate for more power, and plots to over-throw Eddie, the popular Jock, to rise to post of Senior Year president. Fundamental to his plan is the seduction of his beautiful ex-girl-friend Anne-Margaret, a seemingly impossible ambition.

Monks gives a rich and nuanced performance to add to the history of Richard III’s. He rages against a world that he believes cannot love him even whilst grasping that even the able bodied all are all only temporarily able, with surfaces that ‘smother our guts.’ His speech is littered with Shakespearean references and the occasional rhyming couplet, with witty monologues that the other characters can half hear; ‘Who speaks like that?’ says Buck (Ruth Madeley) who is bright and straight-talking, calling him out on his devious manipulations. ‘Your disability does not give you license to be a dick.’ To be fair to Dick, he has a point as the able body characters all either pity or despise or completely ignore him. Until he starts to get to know Anne-Margaret.

The relationship between Dick and Anne starts entirely cynically before developing into a genuine encounter as she teaches him to dance in the studio after school. She wants to understand the way his body works and what it feels like to be him. In a ‘dirty dancing’ style highlight, they eventually perform together at the Roseland High School dance; a truly uplifting moment. Yet Dick’s visceral envy of the fit and beautiful high school jock (Callum Adams) ultimately blinds him to her humanity, and he continues to use her as a pawn in his plot. It’s all blood and horsepower from this point on (‘My Kingdom for some horse-power’) some of which doesn’t totally convince, but it’s packed with drama and keeps you engaged to the end.

Lew’s play offers a bold re-imagining of Shakespeare’s most famous villain and makes an exciting contribution to the conversation about giving voice to disabled characters on stage. It’s thought-provoking, funny and despite its grim ending, Michael Longhurst’s production gives us plenty of reasons to be cheerful.