A decade after its Off-Broadway debut, this quirky comedy from Tony Award-winning writer Stephen Karam makes its London debut at the intimate Trafalgar Studios.
It’s an unusual play. Starring Douglas Booth – who readers may remember was once deemed too pretty to play Pip in a BBC adaptation of Great Expectations – Speech & Debate focuses on the lives of three teenage students at high school in Salem, Oregon. Brought together for a variety of reasons – all related to a sex scandal involving the school’s drama teacher – the trio conspire to expose the truth through performance as part of the school’s Speech & Debate society. It’s tenuous, but hey, top marks for originality.
Although well-acted and reasonably amusing, Speech & Debate suffers a major problem – not enough happens in the middle of the play. It starts strongly, with a quick-fire Grindr conversation, complete with entertaining emojis and gifs; the first scene proper is an explosive teacher/student argument involving a range of topics from abortion to the mayor’s infidelity with under-age boys. It starts with a bang, but immediately slows way down, struggling to regain momentum.
It’s also unfortunate that we never get to meet the drama teacher, who is central to the plot. We hear plenty of rumours about him and the three central characters all discuss their own experiences, but it would have been interesting to hear the story from his side. This could have added more depth to his character and more intrigue to the story overall.
There are a couple of redeeming scenes in the second half of the play. A time-travelling duet involving a young Abraham Lincoln and Mary Warren from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is genuinely hilarious, with some creative rhymes; there’s also a George Michael-tribute dance routine which is alluded to throughout – when the audience is finally allowed to see it, it’s really quite entertaining.
Unfortunately it’s not enough for us to wholeheartedly recommend Speech & Debate. The acting is strong – all the parts are played convincingly – and it’s an original story with a handful of standout moments. It’s just a shame that, in-between the exciting introduction and the interesting conclusion, not enough happens to keep us entertained through.
GT gives Speech & Debate at Trafalgar Studios – 3/5