Review of Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam at Trafalgar Studios 2
It has taken almost a decade for Stephen Karam's 2007 play Speech and Debate to transfer to London in which time the writer has grown in both skill and recognition. This deliberately awkward and lightly comic exploration of adolescent sexual angst set in a high school in Salem Oregon occasionally punches above its weight but delights as a character study that's well realised by a set of committed and comedic performances that make it somewhat worth the wait.
The title refers to a high school extra curricular activity that makes the art of rhetoric a competitive sport. Drawn to the performance nature of the group having once again been sidelined by the school's drama teacher, aspiring triple threat Diwata, who boasts an unconventional love of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, bullies two fellow isolated students into joining her pack. Solomon, the school's investigative student reporter with a nose for a story agrees to do so under sufferance, alongside Howie, a new arrival in class who is desperate to form a gay-straight alliance group. As the three misfits bond their shared experiences bring together their differing agendas towards a sole purpose of outing the school's drama teacher for questionable sexual behaviour.
Whilst the subject matter sounds heavy Karam's handling of it remains light and borders on the trivial. His characters are neatly drawn and each provide moments of recognition and escape. For as much as the three typify all the well-worn clichés of American high school cliques there is an awkward joy in bringing them together under this banner. The exploration of sexuality may be rather clunkily handled it is confidently played along with a text that offers room for strong humour and moments of reflection.
The play already feels dated with regards to all three students' relationship with technology. The show opens on a Grindr chat screen where Douglas Booth's relaxed and slightly distant Howie engages in a chatroom style dialogue with their drama teacher, leading to him printing out the transcript that sparks Solomon's investigation. Diwata 'vlogs' her feelings about losing the lead role in the school performance of Once Upon a Mattress and composes her own musical version of The Crucible, told from the perspective of Mary Warren. At times we feel as though the play is clutching at too many threads and sidelines the more oppressive issues at the expense of humourous set pieces. It never quite feels brave enough in its challenge to authority, but as three personal journeys that converge it manages to feel oddly satisfying.
Much of this is down to Patsy Ferrin's perfectly timed and strikingly balanced performance that maintains her wide-eyed comic gifts and consistently sorry-grateful manner. Balanced against an unapologetically fervent Tony Revolori as Solomon and an understated Douglas Booth the trio effectively convey the appropriate angst and anxiety that perpetuate the narrative.
Tom Attenborough's stop-start production lacks a sense of theatrical ingenuity that would help blend the scenes and performances into a more cohesive drama. At times it feels quite sophomoric in its delivery, from the cast moving set during the blackouts to never quite embracing the small thrust stage of Trafalgar 2, the play demands a somewhat slicker and more urgent interpretation.
Whilst it lacks the maturity and oblique sophistication of Karam's 2016 Tony Award-winning play The Humans, it certainly offers an insight into his writing style and knack of exploring wider issues through a more focused lens. Karam is an astute, tight and enjoyable writer who has a gift at capturing a wider moment on stage, and whilst the moment for this specific play may have past we can look forward to his important voice addressing contemporary life with justified anticipation.