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The Speech

2 starsReviewed by Richard Stamp
Underground Venues
Theatre
14 Jul 7:30pm to 8:30pm, 15-16 Jul 9pm to 10pm

On 18 September this year, four million Scottish voters – one of them me – will be asked the stark question: independence, yes or no?  Set a decade or so in the future, new play The Speech imagines how an unexpected “yes” might affect the country we Scots would leave behind.  We join the English Prime Minister at a moment of crisis, closeted away with her speech-writer – seeking the right words to soothe a national emergency, and to deliver some straight talking on just where her nation stands.

As the draft speech reveals, a lot has happened in the years since 2014.  Wales has declared its own independence, following Scotland into a newly-formed Celtic Alliance.  (Quite what happened to Northern Ireland, or indeed to Ireland in general, is never fully explained.)  As the Celtic tiger roars again, England slumps into a further recession, accompanied by separatist civil disorder and “the fracturing of mutual support between the regions”.  There’s an energy crisis, a climate crisis, and a disastrous war with France (yes, France).  And now, with ultimate cataclysm just moments away, the embattled PM faces one last nightmare… a reverse takeover of the English state, led by a man called Alex Salmond.

I assume there’s an element of satire here... but the details of the back-story just aren’t convincing, and ultimately the play feels rather too much like it’s riding a political hobby-horse.  Scottish independence is deemed, without explanation, a “constitutional fiasco”, while English-born soldiers are considered suspect if they have close relatives abroad.  Most bizarrely of all, the litany of catastrophes listed in the speech includes greater autonomy for the English regions – as though electing an assembly for Yorkshire would be as bad as the aforementioned war with a nuclear power.

A far better-developed parallel thread explores the perils of compromise, reflected through the experience of the country’s second female prime minister.  The PM appears to define herself as the opposite of Margaret Thatcher, determined to prove that negotiation and consensus can achieve just as much as an iron will.  It’s what we all think we want from our leaders – yet it hasn’t worked out well, either for her or for the country.  I wished we’d heard rather more of this interesting theme, but much of the hour is spent on well-worn laments over the power of the press and corrosive influence of spin, where unsurprisingly playwright Tony Earnshaw finds little new to say.

Debbie Christie cuts a sympathetic character as the prime minister, but Tom Cobley plays an oddly methodical speech-writer, lacking the expressiveness you might expect from someone in his role.  More generally, the play would benefit from varying the pace and delivery a little more; as it stands, moments of anger or despair never quite ring true.

Most of all, The Speech needs to re-discover that old storytelling adage: “show, don’t tell”.  The speech itself is a clever framing device, but it degenerates too rapidly into an imagined history lecture – a vast lump of speculative exposition which does nothing to advance the characters’ own stories.  And when we do eventually learn more about both the PM and her adviser, their introspective monologues give us little opportunity to think or form conclusions for ourselves.  By the end of the play, the PM’s speech has had a sympathetic rewrite; perhaps this script could do with the same.

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About the Buxton Fringe

The Buxton Fringe 2014 runs from 9 to 27 July in the town of Buxton, Derbyshire. 

It's easy to find your way around this friendly Festival, with most venues within a stone's throw of the town centre.  For more information on the Peak District's own Fringe, check out the official website.

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