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Review: The Changeling (Southwark Playhouse, Borough)

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

Review by Sam Waite


⭐️⭐️⭐️


On previous visits to The Little, Southwark Playhouse Borough's smaller performance space, I’ve entered to see a sandpit playing the part of a New York kitchen, a rounded desk used as both a workspace and a taxi-app vehicle, and a riot-girl garage band gig. Perhaps I ought to have been more prepared for Lazarus Theatre’s The Changeling, the famed Jacobean tragedy, to feature a boardroom meeting table, karaoke mics, and a “splash zone”.


Written by both Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, The Changeling concerns the scheming and sexual appetites of its characters. Beatrice Joanna is betrothed to Alonzo but doesn't care for him, and is smitten instead with Alcemero – her mother’s ugly servant, De Flores, is enlisted to murder Alonzo with the promise of a great reward, and assumes he will claim Joanna’s virginity rather than a financial gain. Suspicions around Alonzo’s death and questions of Joanna’s “maidenhood” lead to more schemes and a brutal, twisted climax.



Ricky Dukes, both the director and adapter for this production, pulls the piece apart to examine the meaning and weight of the wordings. Originally performed in the 1600s, The Changeling is bracingly blunt in its subject matters, but any subtleties are tossed aside by Dukes’ modernised approached – where a character’s reference to their body may be to any physical feeling or action, a rocking of the hips or hand grazing the groin will do away with any ideas of innocence. Leaning into a modern, office-themed presentation but keeping the text as is, Dukes nicely parallels the two different worlds, in which power dynamics are still a major force at play.


Designed by Sorcha Corcoran, the set is striking and well-utilised. The cast surround the boardroom table, which plays the role of rooms and corridors as required, and the initial moments of dialogue shared across its expanse are very effective – honestly, I wondered how this bold, incendiary classic might have played out if performed entirely as an office meeting. The set is redressed by the acting ensemble during the interval, introducing the increasingly dark, frenzied tone of the second act and keeping the workplace metaphor alive throughout the evening.



While visually striking and shaped with a clear and precise understanding of the text, the production does become confusing at points, and can come across as overloaded with ideas. The central conceit, the underhanded schemes as shady business dealings, is so strong that anything on top feels extraneous and tonal shifts can be too sharp. Songs by Bobby Locke turn key phrases into lively karaoke-esque performances, including a disco ball and balloons being bounced around the audience – what isn't clear is why, and the broadness of such comic touches can feel at odds with a show subtitled as a “Jacobean thriller”.


The cast, all constantly engaged and fronted by Colette O’Rourke’s Joanna and Jamie O’Neill’s De Flores, are terrific. Moving in sync and with such a specificity to their body language, there's a sinister quality to the ensemble from the outset, even when they engage in a musical number or add a brazen, amorous tone to the innuendo. O’Rourke’s palpable disdain and O’Neill’s unbridled longing bounce off one another delightfully, and both bring a humanity to their roles without making them seem any less detestable in their actions. At times the story can become muddled by the modernisation and the superfluous touches, but this cast keep the emotions and energies of their characters crystal clear.



Lighting, from Stuart Glover, and sound, Sam Glossop, are used to sharpen impacts, metaphorical and literal. Each act is announced by a momentarily blackout before the suited cast march to their spots at the table, while act two’s opening employs a soft, distant music to remind us that we are now at a celebration even while there is still foul play afoot. Strobe lighting, only briefly employed, feels a tad too blunt in deepening a shocking moment, but Glover utilises under-table lighting beautifully to create the illusion of a burning building without the need for actual flames.


Visually strong and very well-acted, Lazarus’ new take on The Changeling is held back by what comes across as too many ideas and not even willingness to trim them. At some moments the meeting room concept shone, while at others the dialogue was allowed to fully breathe and the set itself was secondary to a well-performed classic – still, some of the modern touches were more distracting than they were complementary, and their tonal shifts could feel indelicate and jarring. The Changeling is a fascinating watch, but certainly an acquired taste.


The Changeling plays at Southwark Playhouse Borough until October 28th



Photos by Charles Flint

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