The success of Zoe Cooper’s Jess and Joe Forever is emblematic of why fostering new writing is so important. Originally commissioned by Old Vic New Voices and a co-production between Orange Tree Theatre and Farnham Maltings, Cooper’s tale weaves a web of dichotomies against the backdrop of a universal coming of age story. Issues of family, gender and class are allowed to skirt around the edges without overwhelming what is ultimately a heart-warming tale of adolescence.
We meet Jess (Nicola Coughlan) and Joe (Rhys Isaac-Jones) at 9 years old whilst Jess is holidaying at her Norfolk country cottage. Jess is a middle-class southerner whereas Joe is a country boy from Norfolk. Initially, it seems that this will be a story of rural versus urban, as clashes of northern and southern idiosyncrasies dance alongside caricatures of the local village residents in a comical and light-hearted manner. However, as the pair develop and mature, so does the fabric of the story. Jess’ familial discord begins to take a toll on her eating habits and the happy-go-lucky 9-year-old is replaced with a tween struggling with the pressures of maturity; Joe is not exempt from these growing pains as the struggles of gender and identity are made harder by the watchful glare of a small rural village. Thus the symbolism of rivers and tributaries introduced in the opening scene does not go unnoticed; this is a play where the main thread of Jess and Joe’s relationship is constantly fed by the tributary troubles so often experienced by millennial teens.
Key to the piece was the breaking of the fourth wall, which was deftly handled by director Derek Bond. Jess and Joe are principally responsible for the construction of their narrative which Cooper is keen emphasise through direct addresses to the audience. With childlike energy and excitement, years are skipped and alterations are made to accounts rendering it structurally untidy and complicated; yet this should not be taken as a critique of either Cooper or Bond. In fact, this lent itself to conveying the nature of growing up, which is typically rather chaotic. Furthermore, the visual simplicity and multi-functionality of James Perkins’ set hinted at the magic of childlike imagination.
Coughlan and Isaac- Jones are an effortlessly funny duo and handled the complexity and pace of the script with ease. Coughlan’s feigned sophistication and high-pitched plumminess contrasted effectively with Isaac-Jones’ dead-pan Norfolk lilt and their characterisation of the village people had an immature charm.
Jess and Joe Forever is a play that takes conventional genres and themes and pushes them in a range of testing directions. It keeps you on your toes and leaves you with a warm satisfaction as the house lights come up. It is not one to be missed.
Jess and Joe Forever is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until October 8 2016 For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website.
Photo: The Other Richard