BWW REVIEW: Friendships, Finding Where You Fit And Fighting Critical Societies Is Presented With Youthful Simplicity in JESS & JOE FOREVER.
Friday 15th March 2019, 7:45pm, Belvoir St, Downstairs Theatre
Shaun Rennie (Director) brings Zoe Cooper's sweet little coming of age story JESS & JOE FOREVER to the Sydney stage in a delightful expression of the friendships that come out childhood summers. The delightfully creative production is presented by Sugary Rum Productions as part of Belvoir St Theatre's 25A program which sees independent and emerging artists produce shows that celebrate acting, story and community, on a shoestring budget,
The Jess (Julia Robertson) and Joe (Nyx Calder) of JESS & JOE FOREVER are 15 year olds wanting to share their story of their friendship, from meeting at as small children when the 9 and ¾ year old Jess is caught spying on the 9 year old Joe and his friends swimming, to the current day as 15-year-olds facing the world together. The somewhat plump Jess the only child from a well-off West London family. The weedy Little Joe is the son of a widowed farmer in Norfolk, East Anglia. The two very different children make friends over the years, proving that class division and prejudice is a grown-up construct and that there are more important things in life than whether you have holiday homes around the world or know how to fit a fence post.
Presented as children would deliver an impromptu play to parents, Jess and Joe use a set of playground swings as the backdrop to their story with props bought along in backpacks. Production Designer Isabel Hudson fits an old-style park swing set, complete with underlying sandpit into the Downstairs Theatre space. A chalk line drawing with outlines of hills, trees, the school building and town church forms a dado border on the black walls of the theatre, finishing in the names of the cast and creatives.
Robertson and Calder deliver strong, honest performances as the eager youngsters almost bouncing with anticipation when the audience files in. Robert Maxwell has done well in ensuring the two hit the accents with consistency and Rennie makes sure that the realism of youthful behavior remains throughout even when the mood shifts for more weightier matters.
Robertson captures the insecurity of the little girl that knows she doesn't fit society's image of what girls should be like, already concerned about a thigh gap at the age of 12, whilst also having the oblivious innocence of not recognizing her privileged position, thinking it normal to holiday in Italy and go to boarding school with new bedding. Robertson expresses Jess' growth with a subtlety as the innocence diminishes as her parent's fortunes shift and she spends more time with Joe.
Calder ensures that it is clear that, in contrast to Jess, Joe recognizes the social division between his country life and his seasonal friend. Despite Joe's rural existence that hasn't seen much more than his home town he is in many ways much wiser than Jess and Calder conveys this with a sensitivity and subtle expressions to the audience that show that he is often humoring Jess. Calder presents a nuanced performance that gives hints to the fact that Joe is 'different' to the other boys at school and still determining whether it is completely safe to trust Jess.
A beautifully touching story presented with a wonderful whimsy and simplicity of youth, JESS & JOE FOREVER is funny and poignant. A delightful reminder of the innocence and wisdom of youth and the importance of finding where you belong in the world and discovering the people that will accept you regardless of what society says.
Photos: Kate Williams