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Speech and Debate at Trafalgar Studio Two – Review

Speech and Debate. Patsy Ferran (Diwata) and Douglas Booth (Howie). Photo credit Simon Annand
Speech and Debate. Patsy Ferran (Diwata) and Douglas Booth (Howie). Photo credit Simon Annand

There’s an increasingly absurdist undertone in Speech and Debate, in which the courses of action following unprofessional behaviour in public office are frantically considered in a spirited and borderline hysterical, fast-paced production. This most American play lacks any sort of subtlety in its narrative – a moment when teenagers Diwata (Patsy Ferran), Solomon (Tony Revolori) and Howie (Douglas Booth) are all told by their parents that they are making a lot of noise in their respective bedrooms serves as a metaphor for the play as a whole. I don’t think it needs calming down; I have previously recommended bringing ear defenders to shows that are unquestionably too loud – that isn’t the case here. That said, even the programme cover page has a loudspeaker on it, which says something for this play.

The set, at least to begin with, is fairly sparse, particularly in comparison with some of the plays that have taken place in this studio space before. The performance space thus looks bigger than it really is, allowing characters and dialogue room, physically and metaphorically, to breathe comfortably. While it is undeniably a high-octane show, it’s never overpowering, though it does come close to being so on occasion. The sense of frustration Howie experiences when being, in effect, cross-examined, albeit by telephone, is palpable, while Solomon comes across as the sort of person who can dish it out but can’t handle a taste of his own medicine.

Completing the set of characters is the class teacher (Charlotte Lucas); Lucas in later scenes also plays Jan Clark, a journalist, who comes to an after-school club at the invitation of Solomon, in connection with his continuing quest to expose a different teacher for, um, inappropriate extra-curricular activity.

Clark’s presence either destabilises or diffuses an environment already tense by the time she arrives, by way of the teenagers finding each other out. I have occasionally wondered what it must be like to be growing up in the digital era, with others able to view social media profiles. This play gives its audiences a hard-hitting, whilst amusing, portrayal of trial by internet.

There are ebbs and flows in the script – a scene called Extemporaneous Commentary, funnily enough given the title, goes on for too long – another one called Group Interpretation is over all too quickly.

Whom the Speech and Debate playwright, Stephen Karam, is influenced by is not so much implied as broadcasted loud and clear, with extracts from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and lengthy ‘vlogs’ (blog entries in video format) by Diwata, in which repeated references are made to the Mary Rodgers musical Once Upon A Mattress. Thankfully, no prior knowledge of either show is needed to understand anything that is said about them.

I very much enjoyed the parodies both of musical theatre as a genre and of certain types of musical theatre aficionados. The title of the show, ultimately, doesn’t really do it justice – no character is a caricature or a stereotype, and no punchlines feel forced or artificial. It’s unusual to come across a play that treats youngsters respectfully without either disdaining or deifying them. With sufficient plot twists to keep things interesting, this play is well cast, well performed, and laugh-out- loud funny.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Three misfit teenagers are brought together by a sex scandal in their school with nobody taking them seriously until they speak out with hilarious consequences.

Featuring Douglas Booth (Riot Club, Noah) and Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel and coming soon Spiderman:Homecoming), Patsy Ferran (Treasure Island,  As You Like It) and Charlotte Lucas (Red Velvet, Posh).  Presented by Defibrillator, Tom Attenborough directs this fiercely funny play by Stephen Karam, the Tony Award-winning writer of The Humans.

Living in a social media minefield, where peers are judgmental and adults are dictatorial and condescending, Howie, Solomon and Diwata grapple with homophobia, online privacy and how to get the lead in the school play!

Trafalgar Studio Two
14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY
Age Restrictions: 
Suitable for age 14+
Show Opened: 22nd Feb 2017
Booking Until: 1st Apr 2017
Book Tickets for Speech and Debate

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