Review: Speech & Debate, Trafalgar Studios

After a couple of successful off-broadway runs, Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate has been brought to the West End. Directed by Tom Attenborough, Karam’s play follows three misfit teenagers in Salem, Oregon as they band together to expose their drama teacher, who grooms and solicits teenage boys.

Solomon (Tony Revolori) is a friendless nerd who writes for the school paper; Howie (Douglas Booth) is the openly gay new kid with dirt on Healy; and Diwata (Patsy Ferran) is a lonely theatre geek with tonnes of ambition, but little talent. While this sounds like the synopsis of an episode of Glee, it thinly veils the true reality of the play. Every inch a dark comedy, Speech & Debate hones in on the reality of moving through pain, and finding the funny in life.

Tony award-winner Karam’s writing is set in a delicate time in the characters’ lives, as they balance on the thin line between childhood and its naivety, and the beginnings of adulthood. The three characters navigate this difficult period and approach adult issues with the simplistic ideals of an adolescent. The result is a funny and, at times, sad piece, as they learn how best to deal with or push through tough times.

Thankfully, Ferran brings unapologetic comedy to the stage when it threatens to descend into darkness. With her online blog-cum-personal diary, and podcast on which she performs original improvised songs alongside her mini Casio keyboard, she is every theatre-loving kid you knew or were (if they were on acid, and had half the confidence or access to technology that Diwata has). Hilarious and self-involved, with an apparent penchant for nude body stockings and disobeying authority, Ferran portrays Diwata with the perfect concoction of sass and wit.

(Left to Right) Tony Revolori (Solomon), Patsy Ferran (Diwata), and Douglas Booth (Howie). Picture by Simon Annand.

Revolori is headstrong as Solomon, writer for the school paper, and continues to try to address meatier stories to the dismay of his teachers. He is filled with the confidence of an accomplished and published journalist and speaks with certainty. But Revolori reveals Solomon’s age and innocence in moments of vulnerability, and Solomon becomes just a boy playing dress-up. Booth has a charismatic stage presence and is mostly cool and smart as Howie, often the perfect accessory or accomplice to Diwata’s jokes and schemes.

Speech & Debate was originally published in 2008, and you can tell. It uses modern technology as we use it in our everyday lives. Howie is seen using a version of Grindr, a dating app specifically for gay men, and the conversation is projected on the stage wall behind Howie as he sends and receives messages. The inclusion of the messages is vital to the plot and feels natural and current; while his use of memes and internet slang adds to its realism, and even makes it a little trendy.

This play is modern, cool, fast, and real. One that includes twenty-first century language and is about young people. Karam’s writing is contemporary, original, undeniably funny, and a joy for all ages. If anything is about to get younger people interested in theatre again, it is theatre like this.

Speech & Debate is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 1 April.