There is something slightly meta about Hampstead Theatre’s decision to place I and You on Instagram’s portrait video feature, IGTV. Caroline (Maisie Williams), the authoritarian and ‘impossible’ teenage protagonist in Lauren Gunderson’s drama, spends a lot of her time on her phone in the play, taking photos and texting her Mum to bring up a can of Coke to her bedroom.
It’s this bedroom in which we find ourselves for the 85-minute production, one brightly decorated by designer Michael Pavelka with photos, bright colours and three large windows on the ceiling. She’s certainly made herself at home, not least because she is housebound due to illness, but this is all changes when Anthony (Zach Wyatt) enters the room asking for her help with a school project on poetry.
The initial reaction to his arrival is more stressful than comedic, the uncertainty that can come from a random, sudden scenario coming across as weak rather than humorous. If anything, the delivery of the dialogue reads as awkward when delivered by Wyatt and Williams. Pauses between lines last too long and several sentences sound implausible for a North American teen (when has anyone ever used the phrase ‘of cours-oultely’?)
It therefore becomes rather disappointing to see an acting great like Maisie play such a stereotype. Although some effort is done by Gunderson to make her three-dimensional and ‘impossible’ – specifically when it comes to her stances on how to respond to illness, such as when ‘niceness’ becomes fake – the contradictions make Caroline a difficult character to connect to. She is initially presented as apprehensive, yet still with the desire to look forward, dreaming beyond the confines of her bedroom. Yet later on, she claims that she doesn’t “look forward to things, actively, or people, I kinda can’t”. A similar request for Anthony not to pity her and her illness is undermined when Caroline then goes on to complain about how it gets in the way of things. All of this doesn’t give the character nuance, and it doesn’t make her relatable.
The back-and-forth doesn’t bode well for the plot, either. While Wyatt does stand out as ‘voice of reason’ Anthony, pleading with Caroline to work on the poem Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, even his comments on the situation – mostly that his friend is “strange” and that her illness “completely sucks” – are either repetitive or disingenuous. He’s definitely a lot more interesting as a character, professing a love of jazz music and, of course, poetry, but it’s easy to disengage from the lines they both recite from the book when the narrative slows down.
Song of Myself is, according to Anthony, about the preciousness and beauty of life. As the pair dive deep into many an existential discussion, alternating between moments of coming together and moving apart, the indication that a romance will blossom or that something tragic will happen becomes frustratingly obvious very early on, with a very late payoff. The play’s climax is a genuinely unexpected twist, but one of those which somewhat invalidates everything before and leaves audiences to work backwards. From my experience, these shows are rather hit-and-miss with those watching.
Granted, after a short while processing I And You, Anthony’s eagerness to discuss poetry and ‘the beauty of life’ explored in Whitman’s work starts to make sense, if you can afford to go over the show again in your head to find meaning.
With unbelievable characters and a plot which is later called into question, there sadly isn’t much that’s poetic about this baffling bedroom drama.
I and You played at the Hampstead Theatre from 18 October to 24 November 2018. The production is available to view online from the theatre’s Instagram page until 29 March.
Production Images: Manuel Harlan.