Stephen Karam’s play about three high school outsiders who form a speech and debate performance team was such a success in New York that it’s been made into a film, out later this year. This first British production has big names for Studio 2’s tiny space: Douglas Booth, Tony Revolori (Zero the lobby boy in The Grand Budapest Hotel), and the sublime Patsy Ferran. But while much of the humour translates, the specificity of the play keeps it at arm’s length.
There’s a feeling of playing catch-up, given the American tradition of speech and debate clubs informs the very structure of the play. Every scene’s intertitle follows the categories of the competition: Poetry Reading, Extemporaneous Commentary, and so on.
Nonetheless, Karam has an excellent ear for the earnestness of teenagers – and for the absurdity within such earnestness. The cast are believably youthful, nailing a lack of self-awareness that produces some very funny performance sequences. And Tom Attenborough‘s production manages to stage instant messaging and vlogging without feeling naff.
The plotting is rather strange, however: what initially seems almost too schematic, ultimately loses its thread. Inspired by a real-life scandal where a Republican Mayor propositioned an 18-year-old on a gay chat room, Speech and Debate opens with Booth, playing the sexually confident pretty boy Howie, being propositioned online by the drama teacher of his new school. A pushy young reporter for the school newspaper, Solomon (Revolori), gets wind of this, seeing it as his big break. Diwata, a wannabe actress who never gets cast in school plays, starts a speech and debate club instead; she persuades Solomon to use it to stage a reading of his investigation instead of handing it to the press.
This last plot point seems unlikely, to say the least, but the play turns out to not really be about teenagers uncovering adult misdemeanours. The expected big reveal is never staged. Instead, we learn that Howie isn’t the only one with a sexual secret – Diwata and Solomon are also desperate to keep things hidden. But a friendship based on mutual blackmail and the desire to exploit adults’ mistakes slowly morphs into something more genuine.
Further symmetry comes from all three having creative dreams: Howie choreographing dances to George Michael, Diwata working on her own musical, Crucible, featuring a time-travelling Mary Warren, and Solomon determined to make it as a news hound. Not that we see much evidence of talent – a swipe at the entitlement of American youth, perhaps, or just a reminder of the solemnity of teenage passions.
The play is set in Salem, Oregon: another link to Arthur Miller’s play, another thematic neatness, albeit a pretty superficial one. Speech and Debate looks like it might be about a teenage witch hunt of hypocritical adults, but the hunt tails off, the kids’ righteousness undermined by their own fumbled sexual exploits and ulterior motives.
Revolori is good as the driven but clueless Solomon, while Booth plays Howie as rather vacuous. He doesn’t yet seem relaxed in such a small venue, all exaggerated sighs and eye-rolls, his eyebrows seemingly in their own performance competition against each other. But the nimbly expressive Ferran is simply superb: the flat delivery of Diwata’s deeply serious musical turns renders them howlingly funny. She’s so good, I’d happily watch her even if she was performing a one-woman Crucible musical.
Speech and Debate runs at Trafalgar Studios until 1 April.