The Play with Speeches, written by James Woolf, plants itself firmly into the empty space of the Jack Studio Theatre. The characters of Anthony and Penny (played by Matthew Parker and Gillian King) look at the audience with surprise and apprehension as they begin to inhabit the stage. It turns out they are an audition panel waiting for actors to appear at any moment, and they aren’t expecting us (the audience) to be there to witness it. The play-within-the-play that Anthony and Penny are casting for is also called The Play with Speeches, and is made of a mishmash of monologues taken from other (fictional) plays, which have then been curated into a finished product by Anthony. As the evening goes on we see actors come in one after another to show what they have to offer to this very meta play and, of course, chaos ensues.
Parker and King do a great job of establishing the realistic part of the situational comedy – that we are there witnessing their auditions, which brings a closeness to the production, but it uncomfortably swings between funny and a little unwelcoming. Where the duo shine is in moments where we are forgotten, and their stories are allowed to unfold; their bickering had the audience giggling away. Parker’s Anthony is absurdly campy, very funny in moments, but somewhat tiring in between, and King does a great job grounding us in something more relatable; but the difference in energy levels between the pair doesn’t come together to make something coherent.
While the structure of the play is clever – having us watch individual actors audition while also getting the secondary narrative of the play-within-the-play – it doesn’t give enough breathing space for the engaging material to come through. It was quite a lot of work to hold on to everything that was going on: twelve monologuing auditionees, the history between Anthony and Penny, and the story of Anthony’s writing of the meta-play as well as its own unfolding storyline. Perhaps there are too many short-lived roles of actors playing actors, which doesn’t give the talented cast enough time to shine, and I would have loved to have seen more from all of them.
After a few too many ridiculous twists and turns I was left wondering if the quantity of the play compromised the comedic efforts. I liked the ingenuity of the format, and the great cast who delivered it. But there were too many monologues, auditionees and inconsistencies in tone, which made for a quite confusing evening.
Written by James Woolf
Directed by Katherine Reilly
Produced by Olive and Stavros
The Play With Speeches plays at Jack Studio until 22 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.