I arrived at the Hampstead Theatre with much trepidation to see ‘I and You’, a piece by Lauren Gunderson. This fear arose from the marketing of the play: posters of selfie collages all focused on Maisie Williams (yes, of Game of Thrones fame) and the single quote used in all publicity, “I have a life, ok. I text. A lot.” I was ready for a generic and cringe-worthy ‘take’ on modern teenage life. Pleasantly enough, the play is quite a sympathetic exploration of adolescence.
The show begins with Caroline (Maisie Williams) surprised by the unexpected intrusion of Anthony (Zach Wyatt) into her bedroom, where she has been house-bound for months due to a liver condition. Williams’ startled response is rather flat – she begins at maximum and then has nowhere to go. Without variation or pacing to her outrage, the audience are left wondering if they should be finding this funny. Wyatt manages to draw out comedy with a couple of well-timed lines but it took a full fifteen minutes for the actors to settle into their characters and move beyond stilted, superficial displays of emotion.
The play is a two-hander, all set within the same four walls of Caroline’s bedroom. The set is well put together, with real attention to detail coming through in the photos and posters covering the back wall, and an impressive skylight illusion. The dialogue feels faithful to modern teenage speech, which is always a challenge for adult playwrights, but sometimes the subject matter of the pair’s conversation is too realistic, verging on the mundane.
Nonetheless, the playwright is kind to her characters: there is a knowingness to Gunderson’s presentation of adolescence that it is never mocking or disdainful. The self-consciousness of Anthony and Caroline is comic and nostalgic for an older audience; for a younger audience, it feels relatable. The strength of this play is in its ability to do both: to present an accurate vision of teenage life, whilst also providing commentary on it.
Subtlety does not run through the whole performance however, and ‘I and You’ is littered with clichés. Caroline’s illness presents itself at very convenient moments in the plot; the analysis of Walt Whitman’s poetry (for a homework assignment) is particularly corny; and references to social media and the internet do not move beyond basic stereotypes. It is also frustrating to see a contemporary two-hander in which the male part is intellectual and rational, whilst the female part is overly emotional and impulsive: these are the gendered stereotypes we’ve seen in theatre for centuries and not what I expected from a modern female playwright.
The best part of this show is the ending, which I cannot describe in detail without spoiling the rest. Safe to say, there is a big twist and an epic last-minute scene change that was truly stunning (courtesy of Ben Hart’s creative consultancy). The programme for the show, incidentally, has tantalising ‘sealed’ pages which reveal spoilers once ripped into: a very nice touch and well worth the money for the written content too.
The emphasis on Walt Whitman in the script is a challenge to transfer to a British stage: it is a lot less relatable than it must be for American students. A greater knowledge of Whitman and how he is treated by the US school curriculum might add an extra layer of comedy or nostalgia to the show. Gunderson is the most produced playwright in the US right now but, in this production, something was slightly lost in translation.
‘I and You’ runs at Hampstead Theatre until 24th November. Find more info and tickets here.
PHOTOS: Manuel Harlan