‘I and You’ starts with a lot of shouting. A teenage boy walks into his classmate’s bedroom bearing cookies and a Walt Whitman homework assignment; she’s startled, snarky and, like, really annoyed? The girl, Caroline, is played by ‘Game of Thrones’ star Maisie Williams, who seems more pissed off than Arya Stark after her whole family was killed. Teenagers, eh.
That, at first, seems to be the tone of Edward Hall’s production of prolific US playwright Lauren Gunderson’s work. The commentary on social media feels tired, not wry; zingers don’t land. Williams’ performance of frantic, shrill defensiveness starts too high with seemingly nowhere to go. In the first 20 minutes, I was rolling my eyes at the programming yet another underwhelming American import at the Hampstead.
But it’s great when plays surprise you, and this one gets steadily better. As Williams climbs down from that feverish pitch, she becomes much more believable. Caroline softens towards Anthony, played by recent graduate Zach Wyatt who finds a winning route between poetry dork and self-assured nice guy.
‘I and You’ deepens into a really rather enjoyable, tender study of youth: Gunderson is good at capturing both that soft-centre earnestness, and the hard, self-protective casing around it, produced by fear and confusion and the desire to be cool. There are laughs at the well-cadenced teen-speak – more so as Williams relaxes into it – but also a real recognition of how damn seriously you take things at that age, how deeply you feel them.
Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself’ is the perfect prism for all this to refract through. But the emotions are also amplified by circumstance: Caroline has a life-threatening liver condition, and is too ill to really leave her bedroom. The purple walls exaggerate out towards the auditorium, vertiginous yet also claustrophobic in Michael Pavelka’s effective set.
All that fear and future-gazing therefore takes on a bitter-sweet tone, as the pair gradually connect but also face up to the inevitability of death, taking their cue, and comfort, from Whitman’s poem. Yep, it’s a teen comedy about death – and while there are certainly mawkish moments, it also works, and goes to work on you. My own cynicism melted away in time with Caroline’s.
Hall’s production is not brilliantly subtle, however, exposing rather than disguising how Gunderson’s writing leans heavily on lists of quirks to define character – she likes Elvis movies! He loves Coltrane! She likes taking close-up photos! And then there’s a whopping twist: while I wasn’t totally sure about the trickery of Gunderson’s big finish, the way it dovetails with the final lines of Whitman’s poem lend a proper little shiver. ‘Re-examine all that you’ve been told’ indeed.