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Charlotte and Theodore

by on 22 March 2023

Ex Aspirations  

Charlotte and Theodore

by Ryan Craig

Theatre Royal Bath at Richmond Theatre until 25th March, then on tour until 1st April

Review by Daniel Wain

Ryan Craig’s new play Charlotte and Theodore has echoes of Oleanna and Educating Rita, being a two-hander set in the world of academia.  As it follows the changing fortunes of its protagonists (first colleagues, then lovers, then married with two kids) and their intersecting story arcs, it is perhaps most resonant of A Star is Born.

The poignant, if wryly witty, tale tracks Teddy and Lotty’s relationship through a series of flashbacks.  It starts with the literally high-flying Lotty about to jet off to Chicago, leaving house-husband Teddy looking after the kids.  We then skip back to their first encounter, with eager young student Lotty applying to become celebrated philosophy professor Teddy’s research assistant.  Craig’s plot then traces her rise and his fall, until an epilogue which leaps back to happier times and their first date.

It’s formulaic, but still both fun and, as it hits its stride, thought-provoking, dealing with the knotty issues of freedom of speech and ‘cancel culture’.  It’s not long before one realises which way the wind is blowing, especially as Teddy seems bent on self-destruction and Lotty is clearly capable and ambitious. 

There is good chemistry between Kris Marshall and Eve Ponsonby, who both deliver Craig’s quick-fire, overlapping dialogue with vigour and relish, and director Terry Johnson maintains a decent pace, so the play does not outstay its welcome.  There are also some lovely set piece speeches, including a very funny one from Teddy about a toe-curlingly embarrassing wine tasting.

Indeed, Marshall’s Teddy gets most of the best lines, and has certainly the more interesting character and journey, moving, fairly swiftly and inevitably, from guru to outcast.  Channelling Hugh Grant, slightly hunched, cynical and increasingly weary, he never changes clothes, just sheds them, becoming more shambolic as his career implodes.  Marshall is arguably more at home with the comedy than the more serious stuff, but handles both well.  He’s also probably a good ten years too young to be strictly defined as a “boomer”, even if this term does more accurately reflect Teddy’s attitude and views if not his actual age.

Ponsonby has the harder role, just as Lotty herself hardens as reward comes her way.  From research assistant to Head of Faculty (winning the job sought by Teddy) to globe-trotting adviser to the UN and the US Congress, she has captured the zeitgeist while her husband fights against the cultural tide.  The pair’s early sub-Stoppardian philosophical arguments soon morph into more interesting and threatening territory: ambition versus principles, students as consumers, the real-world consequences of theoretical debate and the question of whether the modern world is too literal, having lost the joy of nuance, allegory and metaphor.

Craig uses a neat analogy himself, describing Teddy and Lotty as like counterpoint: two musical themes trying not to collide but working their way around each other.  Ultimately though their attempts are doomed to failure, as she embraces change while he refuses to “genuflect to the new orthodoxy”.  Given so much of their conversation revolves around balanced argument, it’s ironic that Craig makes it pretty clear whose side he’s on.  Teddy is gifted a cogent, humorous, passionate ten-minute speech, to which Lotty gets a ten-word rejoinder.

Craig and Johnson have also presented Theatre Royal Bath with the ideal touring show: two actors, one set, two chairs, one table.  Nevertheless, Simon Kenny’s simple set is a curious choice: grey, stone walls like a bunker, only lightened by a row of illuminated fake books.  Perhaps there is a metaphor here too, in which case I’m afraid I missed it.  Conversely, the Bach piano works, which add high table elegance to the shifts in time, are clearly an exquisite example of the aforementioned counterpoint.  Sadly, the romantic epilogue only serves to hammer home that Teddy and Lotty’s future is far from harmonious.

Daniel Wain, March 2023

Photography by Alastair Muir

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