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BWW Review: JESS AND JOE FOREVER, Orange Tree Theatre, 12 September 2016


Zoe Cooper's new play, Jess and Joe Forever, taps into an experience that so many of us have had; the intensity and importance of a friendship made on a childhood holiday.

As is often the case in these situations, Jess and Joe are an unlikely pair. Joe is the awkward and quiet farm boy who becomes the focus for the 'townie' posh girl Jess, whose family has a holiday home in the village. As the pair reunite each year, their friendship evolves as they start to grow up; childish conversations become overshadowed by issues such as parental problems, eating disorders and intersexuality.

Nicola Coughlan is captivating as Jess: privileged, verbose and eager to please. Her character has a precociousness that could tip into being annoying, but Coughlan stays just the right side of sweetness. She loves to explain what words mean and her asides show masterful comic timing. Her childish innocence is incredibly endearing, especially her consistent devotion to Joe.

Rhys Isaac-Jones, who plays Joe, does not share this innocence; the loss of his mother is a constant presence and the sadness he carries with him is poignant. His strong Norfolk accent implies a more simplistic character, but Isaac-Jones brings a real depth to him.

The play moves from the two as nine-year-olds up to 15. Isaac-Jones shows subtle but distinct changes from child to teenager. His voice alters, he stands straighter and he becomes more confident.

Coughlan is very good at showing the confidence of Jess is just a veneer and she is as vulnerable as anyone else underneath. At nine, Jess already acts in many ways like a teenager, but the changes in her as she grows need to be a little more obvious.

The play is an intense two-hander; Jess and Joe tell their story by addressing each other and the audience, but also speak for all the peripheral characters. In less capable hands, this could be muddling, but Derek Bond's deft direction ensures the audience is never confused about who is talking and to whom.

The scene where Jess and Joe act out the Sunday service at the village church is brilliantly staged and beautifully acted, as Joe leans on a microphone stand as a pulpit and Jess describes the squirming embarrassment of the congregation at the sermon.

At one point Joe switches to playing Jess, as Jess plays the part of Joe's father. Isaac-Jones is beautifully accurate in his mimicry of the intonations of Jess' voice. LaurAnn Brown has done a cracking job as dialect coach, with both actors switching accents and characters with rapid and convincing ease.

James Perkins' design is simple but effective. The floor is a colourful checked carpet with an intriguing pile of soil in the centre; this pile goes on to represent a river bank, a field and a beach. As the play progresses, the dirt comes more trampled and dispersed, reflecting the erosion of childhood innocence.

The combination of Cooper's skilful writing and the brilliant performances by Isaac-Jones and Coughlan mean that in a short hour, the audience becomes completely invested in the couple. You quickly fall in love and will them both on to become the best people they can be.

In 2014, the Orange Tree Theatre lost 25% of its income after the Arts Council of England announced that from 2015-2018, the theatre would not receive funding as a National Portfolio Organisation. Despite this, the success of shows such as French Without Tears and Pomona demonstrate the tenacity of Orange Tree Artistic Director Paul Miller to continue to produce dynamic and exciting work.

Part of this tenacity has been a decision to co-produce some works, including Jess and Joe Forever. The show is a co-production between the Orange Tree and Farnham Maltings, and will be touring after its Richmond run. Despite the fact that there are some in the theatre industry who question the benefits of co-production, the result is that more people will get to see this super little play.

Jess and Joe Forever is a beautifully funny, bittersweet and intensely poignant new work about childhood, growing up and friendship. You will laugh, you will cry, but make sure you get a ticket.

Jess and Joe Forever is at Orange Tree until 8 October

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

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