Tony Award-winning Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate is making its UK debut in Trafalgar Studios 2, making it the first of his works to be produced here. It has also been adapted into a film, which will conveniently be released not long after the run of this British stage production. Defibrillator is putting on this production (directed by Tom Attenborough), living up to their values of celebrating new writing and showcasing “inspiring and entertaining theatre”.
Set in Salem (Oregon, rather than Massachusetts), it follows the lives of three teenage outsiders: openly gay Howie, wannabe journalist Solomon and aspiring actress Diwata. Their lives become entangled by chance, when rumours start to spread about their high school drama teacher and his encounters with teenage boys. Before long they’re the only members of the newly formed Speech & Debate group; despite a rocky start they decide to use their position to make a difference, planning a competition entry with a difference!
Speech & Debate groups are quite an American phenomenon, however the concept is fairly straightforward to grasp – and helpfully each scene is labelled as a separate event that forms part of the competition entry, totalling 11 in all. This smart method of division keeps the play flowing at a perfectly judged pace; some scenes are short and sharp, leaving more time to be dedicated to others where necessary.
Trafalgar Studios 2 is a terrific environment for this sort of production, creating an intimate performance space in which to get the play’s messages across efficiently and personally. Francesca Reidy’s set is mostly a high school interior, but it is practical enough to be transformed into a diner and the three teens’ bedrooms for specific scenes. It is simple yet effective, even incorporating small sections for projections (Duncan McLean) which are used sparingly but well – the very first scene is a good example, as it allows an instant messaging conversation to be viewed and even set to music (Fanfare for the Common Man) to humorous effect.
Whilst it may appear that the play is about people abusing their positions of trust, and how the victims or other people in the know deal with it, this is actually quite a clever frame for exploring other themes that can perhaps be applied more widely to modern society. It looks at online privacy (and how easily we unintentionally give away personal information), as well as the position of social media in the modern world. But at its core is a study of teenagers and what is important to us at that age, whether it’s feeling like you’re not being taken seriously by adults or never getting a part in the school play, there is something there that we can all relate to. They are also three people who wouldn’t necessarily spend time together if they’d been left to their own devices, but some of the best friendships are born when you’re thrown together by outside influences.
The small cast is nothing short of outstanding. Charlotte Lucas doesn’t get a huge amount of stage time, however her double turn as teacher and reporter is highly effective as a foil. The teacher has the power to approve or reject article topics for the school newspaper, much to Solomon’s frustration, and the reporter ends up being the unwitting first viewer of their ‘Group Interpretation’. This is undoubtedly the most hilarious part of a very funny show, as the three perform a dance Diwata devises to demonstrate how they came together as a group – set to George Michael’s Freedom, inspired by an embarrassing moment in Howie’s past.
Tony Revolori is well cast as the smart alec Solomon, always ready with a witty response – he has terrific comic timing that really comes through. Revolori also does well in Solomon’s more serious moments, as he tries to hide his inner conflict over his life choices. Howie is played by Douglas Booth, who makes an assured stage debut. Booth has a natural instinct for comedy and a wonderfully expressive face; he contributes well to the visual humour in the first scene, and really goes for it in the group dance.
In Diwata, Patsy Ferran finds her kooky best. She is absolutely on top of her game, managing to make even the most inane things laugh-out-loud hilarious. Some of the production’s standout moments are definitely her podcasts, where she improvises short verses backed only by pre-recorded chords on her Casio keyboard (Diwata can’t play and sing at the same time) – and it is through these that we first learn of her bizarre obsession with Mary Warren from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Ferran imbues her performance with a sense of nerdy confidence, though that doesn’t mean Diwata has no secrets of her own.
My verdict? A genuinely funny show that also gives you pause for thought, wickedly witty with some memorable performances – Patsy Ferran’s star continues to rise.
Speech & Debate runs at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 1 April 2017. Tickets are available online and from the box office.