“Please don’t riff”
An opportunity to see this play in dress rehearsal was snaffled away from me at the last minute so stubbornly, I’d opted not to see it. But the offer of a friend’s spare ticket and the good notices that Patsy Ferran’s performance seemed to be universally receiving eventually got me along to the Trafalgar Studios’ smaller space.
Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate dates from 2006 (his most recent play The Humans took the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play) and though this is the UK premiere, the drama is also getting a film adaptation which arrives later this month. It’s a curiously American thing – in the same way that spelling bees have been celebrated, Karam extols the virtues of the titular debating society.
Tom Attenborough’s production doesn’t quite smooth over the cultural gap – scenes are punctuated with debating terminology, and only the unlikeliest of turnouts have meant that 10 years later, we actually know who Mike Pence is. And structurally, you can witness Karam still feeling his way into what works dramatically. But the story of three teenage misfits in Salem, Oregon tackling a sexually predatory drama teacher through the medium of musical theatre (a gayed-up musical version of The Crucible no less), has its moments.
That’s mainly due to the efforts of the cast. Ferran’s superb Diwata, a truly tragicomic would-be actress, Tony Revolori’s awkward but ambitious reporter and Douglas Booth’s Grindr-regular new boy Howie combine well in exploring the many growing pains that adolescence inflicts on high school students, and Charlotte Lucas supports confidently in a couple of smaller adult roles. I’m glad I caught it, it could well be worth checking out the film which apparently features cameos from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kristin Chenoweth, and Darren Criss.