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Speech and Debate review at Trafalgar Studios, London – ‘pertinent, hilarious, affecting’

Patsy Ferran, Douglas Booth and Tony Revolori in Speech and Debate at Trafalgar Studios, London. Photo: Simon Annad
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A starry cast enlivens the UK premiere of Stephen Karam’s one-act dark comedy. While a film version of Speech and Debate is due to be released soon, the play premiered Off-Broadway in 2007, in what was in many respects another world – a reference to Mike Pence wouldn’t have had much resonance to a UK audience before last year – but its themes of sexual hypocrisy and the pains of adolescence remain as pertinent as ever.

Set in a high school in the politically correct yet puritanical town of Salem, Oregon, a trio of misfits begrudgingly join forces to uncover a sex scandal by reviving an unpopular school club. There’s Solomon, an ambitious school newspaper reporter, Howie, a new boy with insalubrious internet habits, and Diwata, a zealous actress whose enthusiasm isn’t rewarded with the juicy roles she craves.

Tom Attenborough’s production, in which each scene is punctuated by Speech and Debate terminology, doesn’t always flow seamlessly, but the comic set pieces are handled with aplomb, culminating a in a dazzlingly surreal musical sequence that bends all the rules of the form.

It’s the performances that really make this work. Continuing her ascent as one of the most striking stage performers around, Patsy Ferran is hilarious and affecting as the unashamedly eccentric, stagestruck and achingly lonely Diwata. Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revlori is a compelling bundle of awkwardness and confusion, though Douglas Booth is a pretty but largely passive presence as the most enigmatic member of the group.

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Metatextual comedy drama that’s stronger at the comedy than the drama