‘Free Verse (Speak Up!)’ Review: a blistering coming-of-age story

In the years since its beginning, Furnace Festival, part of West Yorkshire Playhouse‘s Artist Development programme, has garnered quite the reputation as the best place to find amazing pieces of theatre before they officially hit the stage. Speak Up, a rehearsal reading of Zodwa Nyoni’s second Playhouse commission, shown towards the end of the two-week festival, was perhaps a highlight, proving popular among both old and young members of the 50-strong crowd.

Though the showing was an intimate one, the work-in-progress mix of rap, poetry and beat-box certainly lived up to its billing as a “blistering coming-of-age tale”.  Dealing with the story of five young Leeds poets preparing for a competition abroad, the reading felt authentic, even with the constraints of the studio. The cast performing script-in-hand and without a set only served to heighten the raw human power of the story.

‘The cast performing script-in-hand and without a set only served to heighten the raw human power of the story.’

Across the two hours, the plot knitted together themes of class, race, and family, giving each of the five poets diverse backstories that managed, through an endearing combination of humour and drama, to still feel completely organic. The story pivots around small moments. The dialogue reflected this, telling the tale of what drew each member to the world of competitive slam poetry in small, easily missed anecdotes. This allowed the audience to become friends with the cast just as they grew closer to each other.

This meant, that when the third act of the play started and the plot twist came, it was all the more gut-wrenching. The audience were allowed no distance from the emotion and found themselves attempting to rebuild along with the rest of the characters. The fact that the show proved so compelling, even with stage directions being read aloud and stumbles betraying the fact that the young cast had had only one day’s rehearsal, proved the show is certain to be a smash hit in whatever form it takes next.

Rhiannon-Skye Boden

(Image courtesy of New Zimbabwe)

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