Theatre Royal until 18 March Words by Melissa Blease
Cancel culture, gender politics and deplatforming; woke-washing, trolling, flaming and sealioning: these days, publicly expressing an opinion – no matter how innocent, benign or asinine – exposes us to more threats, pitfalls and imbroglios than a good old game of Mouse Trap ever could. Heck, even the rules of of one of the UK’s best-loved traditional family board games have been rewritten for a new generation; today, the game’s makers state that “Mouse Trap allows the youngest members of your family to explore the concept of cause and effect, as the actions they choose to take may cause an adverse reaction from their fellow players.” Who knew?
But in award-winning playwright Ryan Craig’s brand new play, philosophy professor Theodore (‘Teddy’) and his distinguished academic wife (and former research assistant) Charlotte (‘Lotty’) have much bigger issues to deal with than who grabs the most cheese. As Teddy puts it, “genuflect to the new orthodoxy or be cancelled” – and in Teddy’s case, his career, his marriage and the philosophies that fascinate him are all under threat of cancellation in line with his burgeoning status of ‘Pale, Male and Stale’. Does Lotty support Teddy as he rages against the modern-day machine of cancel culture, gender politics, et al? To the contrary; the couple’s story ends as it begins, with Lotty poised to board a flight to America, trading Teddy and her family for a cryptic crème de la crème career in the Cancel Culture carriage trade.
Lotty wasn’t always a high-flyer; when she first met Teddy, she was the wind beneath his wings… but her sights were clearly set on the cockpit. But as Teddy navigated what he perhaps naively took for granted as a well-travelled fight path towards the pinnacle of his career as Head of Faculty, he failed to take the strong headwinds of change into account. As the power dynamics in the couple’s professional and personal relationship ebb and flow, Teddy and Lotty take it in turns to berate or celebrate progress from their own, denigrating or romanticising the past according to personal circumstances and external forces; by the time Teddy is forced to attend an ‘awareness course’ as a result of a heavy-handed takedown of a Times journalist on Twitter, Lotty is the captain of her own flight, relegating her husband to a flimsy, zero-hours ground crew contract.
Designer Simon Kenny’s neutral dark grey set allows both Craig’s highly credible characters and their effortlessly naturalistic dialogue to take the well-deserved spotlight throughout this taut, 90-minute two-hander. Eve Ponsonby carries Lotty through her decade-long development from over-enthusiastic research assistant to self-assured, highly esteemed Head of Faculty (yup, she eventually bags the role Teddy believed would one day be his) with compelling assurance. At times, however, it’s hard to believe that Kris Marshall’s intellectually and emotionally astute-but-clumsy, entirely likeable Teddy would really have fallen for Lotty’s brittle, detached tendencies, apparent from the off. Was Teddy initially too blinded by flattery and the attention from a much younger woman that he chose to ignore such traits?
That conundrum is, perhaps, as vital to Craig’s fast-paced, dynamic script as the hurdles that Lotty and Teddy encounter turn out to be, the only grumble with an otherwise pristine set-up being that Lotty is, at times, allowed to stray too far into clichéd ‘feminist ballbreaker’ territory, leaving Teddy clumsily pigeonholed into the role of clichéd subjugated man. But their saga is at its most impactful long after Ponsonby and Marshall have left the stage: as the ‘new rules’ that define contemporary culture claim to create a level playing field for all, will there be any cheese left for intuitive humanity, the freedom to give voice to what we’re really thinking… and good old fashioned love?