Review: SPEECH & DEBATE, Trafalgar Studios

By: Feb. 27, 2017
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The misfits shall inherit the earth. This enjoyably offbeat play from Stephen Karam (whose The Humans won the Tony for Best Play last year) opened Off-Broadway a decade ago, but the arrival of a film adaptation in April is a decent indicator that its portrait of adolescent isolation and sexual hypocrisy is still pertinent.

The European premiere certainly has moments of topicality (the current Republican administration sharpens its digs at two-faced conservatives, Mike Pence among them) and riotous humour, but its structure is problematic, particularly for a British audience unfamiliar with the competitive debate format referenced - each scene is designated as a different round, like "Duo Interpretation".

The adoption of that form also makes for a verbose, somewhat repetitive and disjointed piece, hitting its talking points more clearly than either emotional beats or cohesive plotting. An expected showdown never arrives, and the adoption of numerous subjects - from generational miscommunication to sexual confusion, personal narrative, angsty coming of age, and unwanted revelation versus a conspiracy of silence - means it's both schematic and scattershot.

Yet this is still a thoroughly engaging premise. Three students are brought together by a combination of extortion and need: Diwata, the (in her mind) criminally overlooked actress/singer denied a role in the school's censored version of Once Upon a Mattress; dogged wannabe journalist Solomon, investigating their drama teacher for sexual misconduct which echoes that of their recently exposed mayor - a right-winger who propositioned teenage boys; and new student Howie, who wants support in forming a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance.

Diwata coerces them into joining the titular club, where she introduces her increasingly eccentric musical version of The Crucible (the play's setting - hammered home - is Salem, Oregon) and Solomon can pursue his exposé, which the school newspaper won't print. Howie is a reluctant source for that story, approached by the drama teacher in a gay chatroom, but it soon becomes apparent that the other two have a personal stake in it as well.

The oddball, compelling, unrelentingly intense Diwata is the standout creation here - laser-focussed on her goal of stardom, ruthlessly observant and candid, but so clearly longing for connection. Her stated desire to be "noticed" extends to her offstage life, where she earnestly journals via a vlog - one of the play's many smart elisions of the private/public divide brought about by technology.

Patsy Ferran further exhibits her inimitable talent. She makes Diwata's naïve assertions both wincingly funny and quietly devastating, along with perfectly timed withering putdowns and some of the funniest song and dance in town - from Casio keyboard vamping to the reveal of a "statement" body stocking. It's a performance that demands wider recognition for this gifted comic actress.

Tony Revlori (The Grand Budapest Hotel) occasionally trips over Solomon's unfiltered interrogations, but nicely captures his panicked incomprehension at a world whose rules seem impossible to follow, while Douglas Booth is appropriately ironic, handsome and confident in his sexuality, but doesn't do enough to examine the insecurity beneath Howie's persona. His comparative docility is no match for the force of nature that is Ferran.

Tom Attenborough uses projections effectively to illustrate the parallel online lives and includes some witty music cues. If occasionally stilted, it's still a recognisable portrait of self-serious but endearingly immature adolescence, and an earnest argument for the necessity of facing issues honestly and supportively. All that, plus a time-travelling Abe Lincoln dancing to George Michael...

Speech & Debate at Trafalgar Studios until 1 April. Book tickets here

Photo credit: Simon Annand


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