Stephen Karam is currently one of America’s most exciting playwrights. His monumental piece, The Humans (winner of the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play) comfortably resides in the canon of iconic American family dramas. Karam’s 2008 work, Speech and Debate, strikes a different chord.
It’s about three unlikely teenage friends who form their high school’s newest and dorkiest club, Speech and Debate. With all the right ingredients of an after-school special, the show still manages to avoid falling into an angst-ridden trap through cutting wit and real honesty. Like the classics of the genre, Breakfast Club or the original Degrassi, Speech and Debate has an authenticity that is at times startling. Smart, charming and brutally funny, it’s a sophisticated piece that’s ultimately about belonging.
In true millennial fashion, technology and sex are almost everywhere. Howie (Douglas Booth) opens the show in bed. He’s chatting to an older man on Grindr and deliberating whether to meet him, while their flirty texts scroll on the centre projector. Meanwhile, there’s a city-wide scandal in Salem, Oregon: the mayor has allegedly been seducing underage boys. But it isn’t until aspiring school reporter Solomon (Tony Revolori) hears friendless drama geek Diwata (Patsy Ferran) badmouth the drama teacher on her live radio blog that these three try to uncover the truth that lies beneath adult hypocrisy.
However more questions are raised than answered. At times the narrative seems jumpy and muddled (the drama teenager never appears onstage) and director Tom Attenborough crafts a world that feels at some points unsteady. Yet part of the show’s strength is in the lack of resolution, the uncertainty that lingers. It is about adolescence, an experience almost guaranteed to be bewildering. The scenes are themselves are labeled as speech and debate categories, a gesture towards their own crafting. Between imagining Mary Warren meeting Abe Lincoln, strip-dancing to George Michael’s Freedom, and rewriting the story of Cain and Abel, these three teenagers constantly shape who they are and who they want to be.
Luckily, that experimentation is hilarious. Ferran proves herself to be one the most engrossing upcoming performers in London. With a mesmerizing gaze of determination and delusion she is magnetic and side-splitting as Patsy. Booth gives a steely confidence that underlies a stronger insecurity, even while sometimes struggling with an American accent. And Revolori carefully and astutely crafts Solomon’s defenses. Charlotte Lucas is also commendable in the adult roles, refusing to turn character into caricature.
Some of the strongest moments are when Karam blends his story with other narratives. Yes, Patsy’s obsession with playing Mary Warren is funny, but it’s also a good allusion to remind us of society’s impulse for creating witchhunts and its instinct to congregate in fear (Salem as the name of the town reinforces this, even if it is a bit on the nose). Speech and Debate is its own piece, with commentary, opinion and interpretation, on the classic story of growing up.
Speech and Debate is on until 1st April 2017. Click here for more details.