On paper, there should be a lot to like about Jess McDonagh’s Car Park King. Billed as ‘Horrible Histories for grown ups’ by the National Theatre Review, the play smartly reimagines Shakespearian tragedy as a farcical slapstick tale. At points, it achieves the difficult mission of appealing to both seasoned theatre-goers and those seeking some light reprieve. At others it does neither, falling somewhere in no-man’s-land between the two audiences it courts.

The basic arc is similar to the bard’s sixteenth century interpretation of Richard III’s life: following the king from insolent heir to his older brother, through his years as Lord Protector and monarch, cumulating in his defeat to Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field.

But here, everything is stripped back and on speed. The performance itself comprises of a single act lasting under ninety minutes, the set design is a simple decorated panel and the cast consists of only three thespians, a few simple props and a dizzying array of costume changes.

The absence of excessive, physical distractions suited the intimate setting of Theatre Deli perfectly and also gave more space for the acting itself to shine which it did, albeit partially. McDonagh nails her various roles as the conniving Elizabeth Woodville, a haggard old witch and a pint-sized version of George, Duke of Clarence. Richard (James Beglin) is reduced to a pathetic victim of circumstance, accidentally partaking in a magic mushroom-induced trip and being totally unaware of the death of his nephews in the Tower of London. Beglin does a sterling job of conveying the sheer hopelessness of the character but does it so well that after an hour it actually became a little grating. There was, for instance, a sustained open-mouthed cry of pain every time some misfortune struck the character. It feels like this was supposed to be a referential joke in this somewhere, but it was lost on many.

More broadly, the play is less accessible than its numerous glowing previews might suggest. Jokes about incest, family treachery and brotherly rivalry are all well and good, but probably much funnier if you’ve some understanding of the basic contours of late medieval history in the first place.

For those already in the know, the combination of slapstick and historically specific jokes serves to provide 80 minutes of light-hearted fun. For those not, it’s advisable to read up on your Plantagenet history before attending, or risk being as bewildered as poor king Richard was, throughout.

3 stars.

Feature Image: Theatre Deli

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