“Complicated, isn’t it?” says one of the characters early on in James Woolf’s The Play With Speeches – and they’re not wrong. As writer Anthony (Matthew Parker) sits down with director Penny (Katherine Reilly) to audition actors for his new play, they discover to their surprise that someone’s been selling tickets, and now they have an audience (us). To make things more complex, the play itself is made up of audition speeches from a selection of fictional works which, when read in the right order, tell an original story. And so we find ourselves an unexpected audience to actors who are auditioning by reading audition speeches which are also part of the play they’re auditioning for. Complicated, isn’t it?
Fortunately, this play within a play within a play (I think?) is also very entertaining, made even more so by the fact that Anthony and Penny used to be a couple, and are now very much not one. As the evening goes on, and Anthony warms to our presence in his audition room, more and more details are “ventilated” about their relationship and its messy conclusion, and it becomes obvious just how much his work has been influenced by his bitterness towards his ex. Meanwhile a series of hapless actors try out for a part; all of them are very good, so any decision on whether they will or will not be selected is based purely on the whim of the panel – and as we quickly discover, neither is shy about voicing their opinions or making snap judgments.
The surprisingly extensive cast of nine are all excellent, with stand-out performances in particular from “auditionees” Anna Blackburn as the flirtatious Bambina and Camilia O’Grady as a panic-stricken Alice. Jumaane Brown is also brilliant as Anthony and Penny’s harried assistant Nick (also known, it transpires, as Jez) and Katherine Reilly – who, as if the production wasn’t meta enough already, also co-directs with Ursula Campbell, who herself plays auditionee Michaela – exudes the perfect amount of weary resignation as Penny, in direct contrast to her flamboyant collaborator. But the stage belongs, just as his character would wish, to Matthew Parker, who is clearly having the time of his life as the pompous, conceited Anthony. His every overblown gesture and exaggerated facial expression lifts the comedy to a new level, and by the end of the show he’s even managed to make the awful Anthony into a sympathetic figure who has the audience (almost) completely on his side.
The play is essentially made up of one long scene, and its brisk pace rarely falters – with the exception of one awkward moment where a volunteer from the audience is called for, and everyone automatically looks away. Apart from that, the laughs come thick and fast, with several jokes directly poking affectionate fun at the theatrical process and the people who take part in it. The Play With Speeches is a clever, multi-layered comedy that provides instant humour but also plenty to try and wrap your brain around on the journey home. All in all, it’s good, silly fun with a fantastic central performance. What’s not to love?
The Play With Speeches is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 4th March.