Probably best not to read this beforehand if you’re planning to see Game of Thrones’ star Maisie Williams in her stage debut in I and You at the Hampstead Theatre…
“I don’t know, what the hell?”
I could try and write about Lauren Gunderson’s play I and You without giving away the twist, or even the fact that there is a twist, but I don’t want to. Perhaps, I won’t reveal specific details but in some ways, just knowing there’s a rug-pull on the way can significantly alter the way you experience a show (whether on stage or on screen – it will be a job and a half trying to get through GoT’s final season free from any spoileriffic noise).
But back to the Hampstead, and this slight two-hander with its substantial delusions of grandeur. Picking at overworked teen-movie tropes, Caroline and Anthony are two teenagers whose growing connection forms the bedrock of the play. She’s waiting for an organ transplant and so not going into school; he’s got her latest poetry homework assignment and though they don’t know each so well, they’re destined to get on in a heady mix of hormones and Walt Whitman.
And so we go, meet-cuting the heck out of this thing. She’s winsomely ill, he’s a sporty jock; she’s a free spirit, he’s the studious one; she’s white and he’s black; could I make it any more obvious. Initial antagonism (such shouting…) turns to quick friendship turns to the potential of something more and then…and then… And then the whole frigging world of the play is whipped out from under you with a twist that just made me go ‘you have got to be be kidding right?!’.
I love a good twist, I really do, but what Gunderson does here is to basically undercut everything that has gone before. And not in an intelligent, makes-you-want-to-rewatch-the-whole-damn-thing kind of way but in a cheap, ‘Gotcha!’ fashion. There are some aspects which suddenly make more sense but there’s also a lot which still sits awkwardly, not least the attempts to evoke contemporary teen life which neither Edward Hall’s production nor Gunderson’s writing manage.
Despite all this, Maisie Williams and Zach Wyatt make solidly impressive stage debuts, especially when the play calms down midway through and there’s some intriguing chat between them (would I have enjoyed it more if I had any opinion about Walt Whitman I wonder?) But they’re elevating material which is fatally cheapened in the final analysis and so the whole thing proves a hugely frustrating watch. Want to see dead people? Put The Sixth Sense on instead.