Tuesday, 28 February 2023

REVIEW: Charlotte and Theodore at the Theatre Royal Bath

The title of Charlotte and Theodore, the new play by Ryan Craig which is enjoying its world premiere at the Ustinov Studio in Bath until 18th March before a short tour to Richmond and Cambridge, does not do justice to the brilliant writing and performances of this clever two-hander. The promotional blurb states, “cancel culture, gender politics, trans rights, online abuse and power struggles are all at play on a university campus” and suggests a rather dry woke debate about modern society driven by social media activism but instead the ninety-minute romp is a funny, witty and pacy exploration of a couple’s relationship over ten years which resonates with Generation X and older audiences. Despite running straight through it never stops amusing and engaging and we could have happily sat through another few scenes of their life together. 

The script is a beautifully observed debate about modern-day gender roles in family life, the ambition and desire for career success and the impact of the community they live in on their relationship. It’s packed with metaphors and allegories that illustrate and amuse and seem to sit naturally in the mouths of two philosophy lecturers at the university. How do you describe a desk that identifies as a stool? Why symbolically is Teddy's last costume change in front of Lotte’s wardrobe? What happens when a flock of swarming birds get caught in a change of wind direction?

It resonates so well as we all battle a social media culture that selects data to fit a preselected conclusion, that confuses and amplifies rumours and speculation over facts, that finds offensive words about protected characteristic groups by ignoring the context and seeks to celebrate and promote diversity by demanding uniformity and compliance. It calls into question the limitations of free speech and challenges a concept of equality that drags everyone down to the lowest level rather than seeking to raise everyone up to a higher level. It is a modern Play for Today.

Kris Marshall is magnificent as Teddy, the white ambitious older male university lecturer who seeks promotion to head of the faculty after years of service and whose set established ways and philosophical intellectual thinking are challenged by the university Standards Committee and unseen student bodies. His confident assurance is broken down over the ten years by frustration and weariness. Eve Ponsonby is delightful as Lotte, the younger research assistant he hires and falls for and who turns the tables on him creating a powerful debate on gender roles and family responsibilities. The two offstage characters of Chloe and Jack, their two children, become catalysts to create tension between the couple and there is a brilliantly funny scene when they discuss how their four-year-old son has peed in a carafe of wine at a faculty event. The seven scenes which jump back and forth in time are very well acted between them with the pauses, looks and body language clearly showing the changing relationship and growing tension over time but we also see their admiration, respect, love, frustration and anger with each other. It feels real even when the words they speak are complicated philosophical banter.

Simply set in a grey box with a frieze of books around the walls and just two chairs and the aforementioned table, Director Terry Johnson ensures the pace and proxemics reflect their relationship status and cleverly animates the scenes changes by the cast to maintain our engagement and interest in the half-light, so much so that occasionally you miss the projected time setting on the rear wall. The bird calls charmingly help set the outdoor locations and chime with Teddy’s allegorical ornithological passion.

Back when Generation X were born there was a brilliant play by Brain Clark called “Whose life is it anyway?” which beautifully articulated the for and against of Euthanasia in an entertaining and provocative play. The writing of Charlotte and Theodore reminded me of that experience and prompts me to suggest this might be called “Whose responsibility is it anyway?”. In a world of gender equality, who is responsible for bringing up the children and for providing for the family? In a world where the stresses and strains of daily life are characterised as mental health issues, who is responsible for protecting us from ourselves? In a world where social media is a part of daily life who is responsible for saying what is true and what is false? In a world where active minorities can create social media trends, Who is responsible for ensuring a standards committee acts impartially and rationally under the weight of media clamour to protect its own reputation?

Of course, as an old white privileged male (like Teddy) I now feel the frustration of the cancel culture and marginalisation of tradition in modern debate but also recognise how the tables have turned and gender equality has reversed past roles but I wonder how the under the thirties will view this play. I hope that it adds to the debate on change in society seeking evolution, reconciliation, understanding and genuine equality of thought rather than harmful social media polarisation, marginalisation and cancellation which divides and creates new barriers to progressive change. I hope that many of them will see this play and reflect on its message.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row E | Price of Ticket: £39.00

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