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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Charlotte and Theodore, Ustinov Studio

Think male-female two-hander in academia and a pair of plays leap to mind: Oleanna and Educating Rita. Combining the lacerating fury of the former with the fuzzy warmth of the latter would be like stirring battery acid into Ovaltine, but that is what Ryan Craig (The Holy Rosenbergs) does in "Charlotte and Theodore", which gallops through hot-button topics in a sketchy 90 minutes at the Ustinov Theatre, Bath.

The action begins with esteemed academic Charlotte (Eve Ponsonby) leaving for a job in the US while her husband, philosophy professor Theodore (Kris Marshall), stays behind with their children. Skipping back and forth in time, we see how they came together – she was his research assistant, then his faculty boss – before tearing themselves apart over ideological differences.

A gradual see-sawing of positions occurs. As a newbie, Charlotte accuses Theodore of mollycoddling his students and rails against “censorship becoming habit”.

Once on the other side of the desk, her perspective has changed. There’s nothing like job security, the play argues, to make you curb your principles. Only when each party has little to lose (Charlotte prior to a promotion she didn’t expect to get, Theodore after a Twitter rant) can they speak freely.

Theodore complains that straight white men are being neglected, but in making him thoroughly decent, hard-working, even an apparent trans ally (though we never discover how that solidarity manifests itself), the play works overtime amplifying the sound of the world’s smallest violin. The characters may trade positions but it’s always the person railing against progress or romanticising the past who is appointed the source of dramatic dynamism and exasperated humour.

The revelation of how other parents are responding to misbehaviour by the couple’s son is nicely cutting (“There’s a WhatsApp group,” mutters Theodore chillingly, to which Charlotte responds: “Oh fuck”), though the idea that a five-year-old would refer to his penis as “my gender construct” is surely beneath a writer of Craig’s calibre.

Cheap laughs may be hard to resist but the drama (directed by Terry Johnson) could have withstood more turbulence, a few extra points in Charlotte’s favour, and characters who are more than just mouthpieces. At Ustinov Studio, Bath, until 18 March then touring.

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