Friday, 30 November 2018

Stage-to-screen review: I and You

Portrait (orientation) of the artist as a young woman.

One of the shows I had a ticket to but had to skip when I was ill last month was Hampstead Theatre's latest imported US hit, Lauren Gunderson's I and You. Sometimes unexpected second chances do come up though, and while the run's now ended the theatre has decided to stream a recording of it for free for 72 hours. Not quite a unique occurence, but the platform's an unusual one, as Gunderson's teen tragicomedy will have attracted a younger audience than usually frequents Swiss Cottage, and accordingly its new home is Instagram and its IGTV service for longer-format videos. What's immediately notable about this is that although of course it can be accessed on a PC, IGTV's optimised for phones and can only be shot in portrait. Which means if nothing else, Edward Hall's production is going to look different to any other stage-to-screen adaptation I've seen before.

The play is set entirely in the bedroom of Caroline (Maisie Williams,) a teenager with an unspecified congenital medical condition she's been dealing with since birth, but which has recently got bad enough for her to need a liver transplant, and has meant she's been off school and confined to her bedroom for months.

Although she promised her English teacher she'd keep up with her schoolwork from home there seems to have been no attempt to do so, so Caroline is surprised when Anthony (Zach Wyatt,) a classmate she barely remembers, turns up wanting her to do her share of their class project - this being an American play, the project's obviously about Walt Whitman. After initially resisting the stranger turning up unannounced in her room, Caroline ends up warming to Anthony, and through him to the poetry, and the play charts the friendship that builds up over the course of the evening they spend working on a presentation.

When a play is adapted for the screen, if it's not completely rewritten and restaged it'll be the recording of one of the live performances, but as Williams and Wyatt exchange barbs at the opening the lack of laughter makes it quickly apparent this performance was just for the recording, and there's no audience there. It probably couldn't be helped in terms of accommodating enough cameras into the auditorium, but it's the most distancing thing about watching it on a screen - these filmed plays are never quite the same as seeing it live, but the sound of the real audience can do wonders in letting you immerse youtself into the performance. It's something that may be exposing some of the weaker elements of the play that I perhaps would have more easily ignored if I'd been there in person. But otherwise the recording is interesting, particularly the way they get over the limitations of filming in portrait - there's a fair amount of split screen being used for scenes where seeing both actors' reactions is important, but they're too far apart to use a wide shot.

The lack of audience reaction means that, without that context, the performances feel a bit shouty, but there's no question after a while that Williams and Wyatt, both making their professional stage debuts, are very good. Their characters may be archetypes, but Williams nails the spikiness covering up her character's vulnerability, while Wyatt is hugely lovable as the too-good-to-be-true (straight-A student, popular athlete and all-round nice guy) Anthony. I and You might feel destined to be a Netflix teen movie (Noah Centineo is waiting by the phone as we speak) but it'll be a good one - there's one caveat, but it's a major one, and it's about the ending.

Michael Pavelka's set for Caroline's bedroom is a detailed collage of the obsessions she fills her lonely days with (once I spotted a sticker of the TARDIS I got distracted trying to see if there was a direwolf as well) and it hides a big surprise - this being Hampstead Theatre I imagine it was an impressive transformation to see in person but it's a bit lost on screen. And while I don't mind that I spotted the story's secret as soon as the first clue was planted, I didn't realise quite how cheesy Gunderson was willing to go, and if your play essentially shares its plot with a notorious One Direction fanfic then I would call that a problem - to the extent that I wonder how much actually being in the room allowed some of the reviewers who gave it four stars to overlook how cringeworthy it is. Perhaps Williams and Wyatt's chemistry and charisma, which comes across even on a small screen, was enough. And in a theatre where even I generally feel about thrity years younger than the target audience, programming this in the first place, let alone turning it into an experiment in putting theatre out over social media, is an interesting attempt at getting a younger audience interested. I did actually enjoy much of I and You, it's just a shame its ending is bound to overshadow everything else for me.

I and You by Lauren Gunderson is streaming until 6pm on the 3rd of December on Instagram's IGTV platform.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes, presented in two parts.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


  1. I saw this on a Wednesday matinee, and the largely elderly audience was gripped and surprised by the story. Excellent acting from the young stars I confess to tears at the end. I would think it is a very different experience on film and without an audience

    1. I think the lack of an audience is the most distancing thing in this instance, the way they've adapted to the medium is pretty clever.

  2. I saw it on the Monday evening when Nick couldn't go. The audience was mostly young on that occasion.

    There were clues that it was more than a falling in love story. For example, we never see Caroline's mother even though she calls for her. And in hindsight even the play's title has a deeper meaning and doesn't just refer to their English project. But I have to admit that I didn't fully guess the ending (perhaps because I wasn't aware of the One Direction fanfic!)

    The transformation of the set in the final moments was indeed impressive, especially as the set had been static for the whole play. The lighting - or rather darkness - and sense of height with Caroline spotlit high up above the stage would be difficult to capture on the small screen.

    (In case you go to The Gatehouse theatre by mistake: run to Highgate station; Northern Line to Camden Town then to Chalk Farm; 31 bus to Swiss Cottage; fortunately 10 minutes faster than TFL expectations. And I saw Canary in 2010 so it wasn't even my first visit to the Hampstead Theatre!)

    1. --SPOILER ALERT--

      I only guessed that he was the boy who died on the basketball court, not that he was the donor - that was the thing that tipped it over into too cheesy for me (and it was only in hindsight that I thought "wait... isn't there a famously disturbing fanfic with this exact same plot?")

      And I have no idea what it is about Hampstead Theatre that makes people constantly end up in the wrong part of London but it seems to keep happening...