The When and Where of Speed Dial

When you’ve been working on a play for over two and half years with two other writers it becomes hard to pinpoint the exact reasons behind why decisions have been made! Everything from character names, through to who wrote certain lines, or who the villain of the play truly is, has been discussed to the nth degree - it has truly been a collaborative project. That said, it’s fun to reflect on the combination of thematic, practical, stylistic and creative factors that informed the decision to set Speed Dial at a 1970s university.

The first is obvious – the music. This is a show with a banging soundtrack from a decade of incredible soul, pop and funk. Sound Designer Oscar Maguire and I were keen to find a sonic link between that decade and today from very early on. We decided to try classic songs that have been sampled or subverted by modern artists to make (arguably) more iconic or famous tracks. We wanted to give audiences that moment of asking ‘where do I know that from?’

Speed Dial was inspired by a piece of text about someone obsessing over ringing phones and panicking that his own was ringing in that same moment, but he couldn’t possibly answer. That story really resonated with us, as we reflected on the impulse to check your phone when you’re in a group and hear a buzz or a ping. The idea that someone could be calling you and not reach you directly is anathema to our modern world. So practically, as the last decade before mobile phones were ‘a thing’, the 1970s felt like a neat contrast with us half a century later. Despite this practical restraint, we still wanted to tell a story about connection, interconnectedness and isolation that felt contemporary and modern. There’s a clear irony to that when access to anyone you’ve ever met or spoken to is in your pocket with an iPhone, but we loved the imagery of endless coiling, spiralling phone cables overhead and linking receivers and rotary dials that reached its zenith in the ‘70s. We hope it isn’t too difficult to find contemporary resonance in a play that depicts lonely, individuals afraid or unable to connect with one another, in spite of massive global interconnection through telephones.

A university is a classic setting for a story about learning and growth, and like all my favourite stories about educators or places of education, Speed Dial expressively depicts a student teaching lessons to their teacher. This is a fun dynamic that creates great tension and comedy, but also makes for rewarding dramatic payoffs and potentially beautiful character growth.

When we look back at the end of that decade, we begin to feel the looming election of Thatcher in ’79 that had huge implications for education in the UK. This fascinating article breaks down the gradual devaluing of university degrees and the quality of education, begun in earnest by that Conservative government. We were really interested in the complexity of this discussion, with the tension between improved access/opportunity, especially the greedy opportunism of ripping people off while giving them less than what they were promised. The 2020 exam results scandal hit as we were rewriting after WIPs in March that year, and we were shocked by the callousness with which that was handled as teachers were ignored, students unsettled and the results themselves shown ultimately to be an arbitrarily movable feast that could be used to exclude young students based on background and social class. We felt that was a useful and sad reference point both for this play, and for this ongoing issue.  

Related Listings

Speed Dial

Speed Dial

It’s finals week on an unnamed university campus and a professor in English literature is having a bad time of it. 

Articles by Ollie Norton-Smith

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