(Look, bear with me on this one, ok? There’s a nice Sweet Valley High reference coming up that I think you’ll enjoy.)
Anyway, after an enforced hiatus from theatre going cause by that peskiest of things, real life commitments, it was back into the swing of things and off to the Donmar Warehouse - which I love - to see Teddy Ferrera.
Written by American dramatist Christopher Shinn, Teddy Ferrara tells the story of a group of students at an American university which is shocked by a series of suicides of gay students. But you can largely ignore that. This play places ideas firmly over narrative: belonging, victimhood, the role of technology in social interaction being top of the list. And it desperately wants you to know that. It’s trying so hard to tell you that it practically slaps you in the face with its earnestness, often to the point where you want to slap it back and tell it to sit down because it’s embarrassing itself. Loathe as I am to quote from it, The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish has it right when he says this play feels like its own post-show discussion rather than the show itself. Or to put it another way, as I overheard the gay couple sat behind us describe it, “it felt like a game of gay bingo”.
I so wish I’d thought of that line because it’s true. Every classic LGBTQ stereotype is present, correct and unsubtle. This would be a much more interesting play if it tried to subvert any of these stereotypes instead of just mentioning Grindr, the internet or Abercrombie and Fitch models every ten minutes. There is no real depth here. At all. The play is trying so hard to be relevant (‘microaggression! Trigger warnings! Dance party!’) and inclusive that it occasionally veers dangerously close to self parody, something which is not helped by the fact that the dialogue tends towards Sweet Valley High (showing my age there) levels of complexity and nuance.
It’s also not helped by a truly leaden ending which isn't really an ending at all. It’s more just that the play stops, leaving several plotlines hanging in the air in a way that suggests the author got bored and gave up. It’s incredibly frustrating and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth for the audience who have given up the last two hours of their evening in the hope of some kind of satisfying resolution. And I'm sure that if the ending had been better I would be more charitably disposed and prepared to overlook all of the stuff I've spent the last three paragraphs complaining about.
All of that said there this is by no means a terrible production and the main redeeming features come in the form of a small but strong ensemble cast. My favourite character was Matthew Marsh’s university President, stumbling his way through the social issues the play crosses off its bingo card with a very relatable mixture of genuine concern, pragmatism and bafflement. The play sets him up as a ridiculous figure indicative of The Man and all of his incumbent evils (he’s even a politician!) but I found him quite sympathetic - and I suspect everyone who has ever been involved in student politics would probably agree with me, even if not out loud. He has all of the play’s limited supply of best lines (I particularly enjoyed this exchange with his long suffering Provost: ‘how long before someone says microaggression? Five minutes?’ ‘just try not to commit any’ ‘that’s impossible’) and provides some sorely needed laughs and energy to the production. In a title role that offers sadly little stage time, Ryan McParland gives a masterclass in character acting as an awkward, struggling misfit. And in the play’s biggest part, Luke Newberry manages to cut through some of the earnestness and give us a genuinely believable and sympathetic figure to root for. It’s all the more frustrating that his story is the one the play’s lack of ending fails to resolve.
Overall, then, a mixed bag of a night out but one that I can 100% guarantee you’ll be able to get tickets for. We went to the tiny 250-odd seat Donmar on a Friday night to see Teddy Ferrara and the place was half empty (more than half after the interval). Neither that fact nor this post are a ringing endorsement of the production, but if you want a not awful, last minute night at the theatre then this is a very good bet.
Teddy Ferrara plays at the Donmar Warehouse until 5th December.