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Review of The Man Who Would Be King at Greenwich Theatre

The Man Who Would Be King 2016
The Man Who Would Be King 2016 – Photography by Karla Gowlett

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s novella by the same name, The Man Who Would be King is here retold for today, adapted and directed by Dan Coleman. Set against the sweaty, dusty surrounds of nowhere eastern Afghanistan, the story unfolds as a series of remembered incidents, as Peachy Carnehan (Dan Nicholson) and Daniel Davot (Christopher Birks) set out in search of their own kingdom. The tale of greed, corruption and the cult of charisma causes a young, idealistic man to ultimately push the bounds of morality too far. His inherent inability to empathise with the “other” he has imagined the locals to be causes him to lose his way – classically hubris-filled, with nasty results. The racism inherent in this play is by no means as historically separated from our own time as we’d like to think, making this particular play one which remains relevant thematically.

This is a solid two-hander, and there is some incredible chemistry on stage here. Nicholson and Birks move swiftly and smoothly from character to character, their effective back and forth feeling most tidy and satisfying. Effective lighting design assists in turning a humble, static set into an imaginative landscape of mountainous, deftly conveying the remote Kafiristan.

Coleman’s retelling sees the journalist “narrator” of the original transform into a young officer (also Birks), telling the tale of misfortune to a visiting colonel. This structure adds a less clichéd feel to the classic story, but comes at the small sacrifice of sense – it feels a little laden as a construct, though Birks and Nicholson move so deftly between characters that this is only a small source of criticism.

Comedic moments do much to lighten what is an inherently morally-disturbing play. The inherent colonialist racism required of the original story comes across as somehow out-dated at times, but on reflection these issues are by no means eliminated today – where Kipling’s context equated colonial efforts with civilising local peoples, today’s assumptions are far more sinister. Fear of the other dominates, in favour of the assumed ignorance which features in Kipling’s story.

Nicholson and Birks are to be congratulated for conveying a philosophically complex tale of corruption with deftness, being thoroughly captivating in their performances. Against the backdrop of the current American electoral race, the concepts behind the cult of charisma and of seeking power at all cost (as well as the danger of oversimplifying cultures we do not fully understand) remain as relevant as ever.

Three and a half gold stars

Review by Christina Calgaro

A tale of greed, adventure and ruin inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s classic mercenary yarn.

This is the story of Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot; soldiers-for-hire amid the shifting borders of the Middle East. Tired of the mercenary life, Peachy and Daniel have come up with a plan; head to Northern Afghanistan, enslave the natives, and install themselves as kings.

Dawn State (“a fantastic upcoming company” British Theatre Guide) combine searing text, bold physicality and original music to bring Kipling’s ground-breaking novella to life, in a thrilling new play exploring Britain’s colonial legacy in the Middle East.

Presented by: Dawn State Theatre Company
Adapted and directed by: Dan Coleman
Performed by: Christopher Birks and Dan Nicholson
Music composed by: Dan Nicholson
Performance times: Eves 7.30pm
Running time: 75 minutes


  • Christina Carè

    'Christina is just another Aussie in London, writing about the arts and signing up for all the weird performance productions the city has to offer. She is Content Editor at Spotlight and tweets from @christinacare.'

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