The Play With Speeches

James Woolf
Olive and Stavros
The Jack Studio Theatre

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Matthew Parker in The Play with Speeches Credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Gillian King and Matthew Parker in The Play with Speeches Credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Gillian King in The Play with Speeches Credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Gillian King Matthew Parker and Ingrid Marsh in The Play with Speeches Credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Gillian King Matthew Parker and Harrison Trott in The Play with Speeches Credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Credit: Publicity Image

James Woolf’s play comes with some anticipation as he picked up one of three Offie Award nominations earlier in the year for Jo and Sam Find Themselves In Woking.

Like Joe and Sam, also directed by Katherine Reilly, his The Play With Speeches was first seen at the Hen and Chickens and arrives south of the river living up to and in many ways exceeding expectations. I suspect those who don’t book quickly enough will miss the chance to lose themselves in this cleverly structured comedy now playing at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.

This is a very funny play with a meta take on an already meta play-within-a-play concept that sees playwright Anthony auditioning actors for his play, The Play With Speeches, a play made up of audition speeches.

He is auditioning in a theatre one evening with his ex, Penny, who is directing the play, only to find that the theatre has sold tickets and they unexpectedly have an audience.

Penny is un-awed and down to earth, but Anthony rises to the occasion and plays to the crowd with exaggerated hand gestures and a luvvy campness projecting his inner “theatrical type”.

Like the parent of a new-born, Anthony wants everyone to compliment and approve whilst he annoyingly over-enthuses, blind to the flaws of his creation or his conduct, and eventually the unresolved resentment between Penny and Anthony rises to the surface.

As director and playwright bait and provoke each other, the stakes mount and the audience become complicit in the action as the edges blur between the play and the play-within.

The history between Penny and Anthony speaks of deep hurt but remains superficial and an echo of lost affection would raise their relationship above pure silliness—at the moment, what they ever saw in each other is too opaque. That, joined with a better explanation as to why Penny has been chosen, never mind agreed, to direct the play, would reinforce the foundations of an underlying premise, otherwise why compromise herself?

Matthew Parker exhibits real comic talent as the wounded Anthony, arms like windmills, effervescent with energy and cornering the market in outraged indignation, when Gillian King’s businesslike, but nonetheless forbearing and likeable Penny, tries to put him in his place.

Parker and King are always present, reacting with eyebrows and flicks of the hand even when all eyes should be on the auditionees, some of whose scenes—Izabelle Lee, Molly Wheaton and Julie Foy—are little gems in themselves.

There is always something to look at in The Play With Speeches, and look out for too as a play-within-a-play will often yield a twist. Woolf’s great accomplishment is to transport the audience to a hall of mirrors where nothing is completely what it seems. If this was a thriller, it would be petrifying. Thankfully, this is a comedy and a deliciously funny one.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti

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