Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Theatre review: Speech & Debate

An off-Broadway hit that's about to get a film adaptation, Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate is a gentle high school comedy, and a pleasingly mainstream look at LGBT teenagers' issues. Solomon (Tony Revolori) is an aspiring journalist whose ambition to get noticed means he always writes about subjects too controversial for the school paper to print. When the town is rocked by the scandal of the mayor having sex with much younger men, he decides to follow up on a rumour of one of his teachers doing the same thing. Howie (Douglas Booth) is an openly gay student who's only just transferred to the school, and been propositioned on Grindr by the drama teacher. He and Solomon find each other in the comments section of a podcast by Diwata (Patsy Ferran,) who's got a vendetta against the teacher for never casting her in school plays.

She'll help them put this story together but there's a catch: She wants to start a Speech and Debate club* to release her frustrated urge to perform, and needs another two students if she's going to have it approved by the school.

The cast is completed by Charlotte Lucas in two small roles but this is essentially a story about three friendless teenagers who are using each other to get something they want - Howie wants to start a Gay/Straight Alliance and similarly needs three students to get it off the ground - and end up finding friends instead. Which at times is as cheesy as it sounds, and Tom Attenborough's production doesn't really get over the fact that the plotting is clunky and awkward, with the story relying too heavily on the characters keeping huge secrets, and the reasons they do anything not holding up to too much scrutiny.

But Karam's play still succeeds because its characters, though frustrating, are likeable, and its main focus is on the comedy. This works very well, from the Grindr chats projected onto the back wall in the opening scene, to the three kids' ongoing obsessions - the play is set in Salem, Oregon, which leads to Diwata fixating on the other Salem and Miller's Crucible, which she wants to turn into a musical - and there's even a couple of big setpieces, like Howie's dance routine, which was so camp it got him thrown out of the scouts.

But the real hit in this particular production is the always-impressive Patsy Ferran, who in this small venue really gets to show off her talent as the deadpan comedy queen as her character earnestly ploughs through songs and speeches in the utter conviction of her own genius. Speech & Debate would no doubt be fun regardless, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for Ferran's performance alone.

Speech & Debate by Stephen Karam is booking until the 1st of April at Trafalgar Studio 2.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Simon Annand.

*which seems to be what used to be called Forensics; I guess they finally took the hint and renamed it to something that doesn't sound like they perform autopsies.

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