Trafalgar Studio 2, London (***)
It’s funny how Time can render things. Stephen Karam, a Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle and Obie award winner (for The Humans) in 2016, wrote Speech & Debate as a workshop piece in 2006.
It then received its first full production the following year as the inaugural production for Todd Haimes’ Roundabout Underground in New York and must have seemed fairly radical at the time.
Ten years on, this teenage `coming out’, social media/quirky comedy proves a perfect vehicle for the rising star that is Patsy Ferran (a memorable female Jim in Polly Findlay/Bryony Lavery’s National Theatre reworked Treasure Island for which she earned Most Promising Newcomer 2014). But it also now seems just a tad déjà vu, from its gay politics to its chat-room videos.
Not that its point is not well made. Even more now than then, hypocrisy is in the air.
I daresay a spot of updating has been added, too, with references to right-wing Christian Republicans and `family values’ cheerleaders like Mike Pence and Ted Cruz. Both are name-checked along with a closeted Mayor by Tony Revolori’s motor-mouth student, Solomon, desperate to write an exposé of him for his student paper in his home town, Salem, Oregon.
The air is blue with preppy angst between Solomon and his teacher (Charlotte Lucas) and high school colleagues, Ferran’s Diwata and Douglas Booth (Boy George in BBC biopic Worried About the Boy and Pip in Great Expectations). Booth’s Howie is already `out’ and sort-of proud. Diwata meanwhile is eager to make her claim to fame as an all-singing version of The Crucible’s Mary Warren whilst hosting her own daily online live blog.
Ferran is extraordinary. She takes Diwata whose vivid imagination knows no bounds and makes the screwball entirely her own – a gamine, fully fledged eccentric.
Revolori who made his name as the goggle-eyed porter/sidekick to Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel is more of a steam-engine merchant here, clattering along at high speed. Booth’s Howie is strangely quiescent.
Its politics are heartfelt and in the right place and its observations fairly acute – when you can catch them.
Karam’s dialogue is packed with absurdist asides and adolescent gawky awkwardness of a particularly American variety. So whilst director Tom Attenborough injects nerveless pace and songs into the mix as well as a delightfully self-conscious dance by Diwata, Howie and Solomon trying to be sexy but amusingly failing badly, it’s a comedy that needs an audience to know its cultural pitch.
Americano frothy will do nicely for some. I’m afraid for this old-timer it just felt a bit flat, Ferran aside. She’s a firecracker.
Speech & Debate
By Stephen Karam
Howie: Douglas Booth
Diwata: Patsy Ferran
Solomon: Tony Revolori
Teacher/Reporter: Charlotte Lucas
Director: Tom Attenborough
Designer: Francesca Reidy
Costume Supervisor: Natalie Pryce
Lighting: Christopher Nairne
Sound: Simon Slater
Video Design: Duncan McLean and Stanley Orwin-Fraser
Movement Director: Shelby Williams
Dialect Coach: Simon Money
Assistant Director: Robbie Taylor Hunt
Presented by defibrillator: Executive Producers: Trish Wadley and James Hillier
Associate Producers: Eilene Davidson, Corinne Rooney and Ann Joseph for Ocourant; Rose Theatre, Kingston – Producer: Keren Misgav Ristvedt, Assistant Producer: William Nelson
First perf of this UK premiere of Speech & Debate at Trafalgar Studios, London, Feb 22, 2017
First performed as a workshop prod at Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theatre, July 2006
World premiere at the Roundabout Theatre Company Roundabout Underground, NYC, Oct 2007
Review first published on this site, March 1, 2017