I and You starring Maisie Williams review at Hampstead Theatre – ‘an underwhelming teen two-hander’
Lauren Gunderson is one of the most produced playwrights in America today. I and You is one of her most popular plays. It takes the form of a 90-minute meet-cute between Caroline, a teenager with an unspecified liver condition that means she can’t leave her room and is reliant on social media to connect with the world, and Anthony, the affable but slightly geeky classmate who shows up in her bedroom with a homework project for them to work on.
Over the next hour and a half, they shoot the shit about Walt Whitman – the use of pronouns in Leaves of Grass is the subject of their English assignment – jazz, photography, and their hopes for the future, while dodging around the fact that she’s on the waiting list for a transplant and may not live to accomplish any of the things she dreams of doing. During this time, the attraction between them becomes increasingly clear.
Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark) and Zach Wyatt – both making their professional theatre debuts – are endearing performers and have a nice rapport. But though they’re very watchable, it’s not enough to compensate for the flimsiness of the material.
Gunderson’s play is a surprisingly thin thing. The characters are familiar teen drama types rather than fully rounded individuals. Caroline, with her mystery illness, is what you might call a ‘damaged pixie dream girl’, while Anthony is the athlete with the sensitive side. Williams has a puppyish energy as befits someone who describes herself as “small but mighty, like a Dachshund”, plus a bravado she uses to mask her justifiable fear and sense of isolation. Wyatt has a nice line in faltering awkwardness interspersed with enthusiasm.
Edward Hall’s production, though slick, can’t quite overcome the fact that this a two teenagers talking about death and poetry with a big twist tacked on at the end.
The big reveal, though an excuse for some well-executed stage magic, feels oddly hollow: a party trick, rather than an ending of emotional resonance. In fact, it undermines everything that’s come before. Though the twist probably accounts for the play’s popularity – I can see why it might have teen appeal – it feels a bit cheap. The whole thing ultimately comes across like a watered-down cocktail of The Fault in Our Stars, Dead Poets Society and a ‘very special episode’ of Dawson’s Creek.
Michael Pavelka’s set with its psychedelic walls, strings of fairy lights and vast skylight, through which the moon can be glimpsed, feels like a teenage girl’s bedroom as designed by an adult man – though it comes into its own at the end.
Williams and Wyatt have enough charisma to keep things interesting – the production is at its most appealing when they’re arguing about Whitman. They’re fresh and endearing, the play much less so.