Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar is a rare thing: utterly absorbing, politically urgent and polished to a tee. Christopher Shinn’s play is about the LGBTQ community on an American campus. It is inspired by the real events of Tyler Clementi, who commited suicide in 2010 after his roommate used a webcam to spy on his sexual encounters with a man.
Shinn weaves together the stories of an ensemble of characters, exploring the challenges facing those marginalised by their sexuality or gender identity. The predominant theme is what it’s like to be a young gay man today, and at the centre is Teddy Ferrara – a socially isolated freshman with an exhibitionist double life on an online gay forum.
What Shinn’s writing so sensitively and intelligently explores, are the real difficulties behind the statistics. We hear a whole host of perspectives on these issues – from the university staff making the policies, to disabled and transgender students. The production manages to debate its politics, while always remaining rooted in humanity and realistic drama.
Ryan McParland compellingly plays the complex character of Teddy, his eyes frantically searching for some kind of sign of affirmation. While Teddy is at the heart of the piece, we are given insight into the other characters’ struggles with their identity and place in the world. Oliver Johnstone as the deeply troubled journalist Drew, and Gabe, the apparently confident president of the LGBTQ community played by Luke Newberry, are both excellent performances in an infallible ensemble of actors.
Dominic Cooke’s production is seamlessly smooth, the scenes melting together through his canny use of the space. This is aided by Hildegad Bechtler’s glass and brick set design, which effectively evokes campus life without having to impress it upon us. Carolyn Downing’s sound design cleverly creates an echo chamber to give the sense of a corridor upstage, and she later creates the sense of a large auditorium. These design elements provide us with a strong sense of the dauntingly large campus world within the intimate space of the Donmar.
Teddy Ferrara is a pertinent choice of commissioning from the Donmar’s creative team. This fact was brought home to me when the elderly lady next to me found it funny that the transgender community would want gender-neutral toilets throughout campus.
This is a balanced examination into the unglamorous, very real and difficult side of being young and different right now, and what is at stake if we ignore these voices.
Teddy Ferrara is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 December. For more information and tickets, see the Donmar Warehouse website.