Review by Harry Bower
As you enter the auditorium of the Richmond Theatre the first thing you notice is the beautifully intricate detailing on the ceiling. Charlotte and Theodore’s dominating and aggressive stone-walled set is a close second. It is brutal in its design and represents architecture of a time gone by – and in many ways, so does the show. Advertised as a “funny, timely, and thought-provoking new play”, Ryan Craig’s new two-hander promised an entertaining evening. Ultimately it fulfilled that promise though probably for only part of its audience.
Kris Marshall of My Family and Love Actually fame stars as Theodore, opposite Eve Ponsonby (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child and Shakespeare in Love) as Charlotte. The pair are esteemed academics and thoughtful philosophers, at one point colleagues, then lovers, married, and parents to two children. The play tracks their relationship in a series of flashbacks, from Charlotte being given her break in academia by Theodore, to parenting struggles, peaks and troughs in career paths, and Charlotte eventually overtaking Theodore and becoming his boss.
There are some brilliant and intellectually enjoyable scenes in which our couple lightly dance around the philosophical questions of life, teasing each other into submission and each pushing the boundaries of what they believe to be true. The chemistry between Marshall and Ponsonby helps drive these scenes, each making use of great comic timing and body language to communicate with more than just words. Marshall’s Theodore is cynical, critical, and exhausted – which perfectly clashes with Ponsonby’s enthusiastic and youthful Charlotte, the pair shining in the more understated moments where you can tell they’re having fun, bouncing off each other and charming the audience.
It's the second act in which the narrative begins to shift, as Charlotte is offered Theodore’s dream role (Head of Faculty at the University), and he is left bereft, having to deal with being upstaged and overlooked in favour of a ‘new dawn’. After he reacts poorly on Twitter he is at threat of being cancelled, so is made to apologise and attend some awareness classes. Really for me this is where the show stops being a playful drama about relationships with some clever storytelling mechanics, and starts to get its elbows out. It takes aim at and incorporates into its plot; cancel culture, pronouns (yes, really, another play which finds pronouns hilarious), the dangers of tweeting, ‘wokeness’ (though the phrase is never uttered), privileged old white men being threatened by literally anyone else, and of course the notion that a woman might be more successful than her male partner.
Let me be clear – it accomplishes some of this social commentary with elegance, but with other bits it is more like a bull in a china shop, deliberate and lacking any sort of nuance, reaching for the cheap laughs. There is a ten minute passionate monologue from Theodore about his downfall which is well written, humorous and hard-hitting, after which I was expecting a similar length rebuttal from Charlotte making her points in turn. No such rebuttal came, and while that would be fine if it were clear to the audience Theodore’s points were unreasonable…but unfortunately, it isn’t. Instead there was laughter from all around stalls and I somewhat felt most people had missed the point.
The show does do an effective job at questioning the power of words and whether free speech can ever be absolute. It also effectively puts on stage a representation of stories being played out all around the country; stories of once popular and successful trend setters falling foul of a rapidly changing set of societal expectations and norms, slowly becoming more irrelevant and some sweeping opinions becoming more unacceptable. Is it right that this is the case? Is metaphor and exploratory thought dead? The show asks those questions but never gives a definitive answer. If the audience were making up its mind based solely on the play text, I don’t know which way they’d lean.
And that, I think, is fundamentally the problem. This feels like a play which we should have seen emerge five or even seven years ago, when it would have been at the very edge of fresh satire, making biting observations and provoking thought in its audience about which side of the fence they fall down on. In reality it feels like it’s been written as an outlet – characters written with few redeeming features and virtually zero likability, so long as they fulfil the overall message of the piece.
Charlotte and Theodore is the theatrical equivalent of a statue of a controversial figure in history being torn down, but in the process becoming sentient and shouting into the abyss about how unfair it is. I’m sure those who enjoyed the show more than I might suggest I have missed the point. I would prefer to ask whether the point was even necessary in the first place. It is a play with two genuinely excellent performances, some creative if not wholly original storytelling mechanics, and some captivating scenes of relationship drama. But at its core it offers nothing particularly intelligent or new to say on its themes and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Charlotte and Theodore plays at The Richmond Theatre until Sunday 25 March 2023.
Photos by Alastair Muir