Jess and Joe Forever

Zoe Cooper
Farnham Maltings and Orange Tree Theatre
Orange Tree Theatre

Nicola Coughlan as Jess and Rhys Isaac-Jones as Joe Credit: The Other Richard
Rhys Isaac-Jones as Joe and Nicola Coughlan as Jess Credit: The Other Richard

When nine and three-quarters-years-old Jessica (no one calls her that) first sees nine-year-old Joe he’s in blue Speedos jumping out of a tall tree into a rivulet.

She’s a plump, middle-class townie from London spending two weeks with an au pair in the family cottage in Norfolk before a ”proper” holiday in their villa on Lake Garda. She thinks she knows everything.

He’s a local village boy, the smallest of the gang and the only one not naked—and that’s a clue to a mystery that this play never sets out clearly.

Jess and Joe tell their own story, looking back when fifteen on their continuing summertime friendship as though working on some kind of school project presentation, narrating some things, acting out others, talking to the audience directly.

It is a minimalist staging. Designer James Perkins supplies a patchwork carpet with a pile of earth at its centre that gets shovelled and trampled all over. Microphones on stands and a cassette recorder emphasis the format, the mikes used to highlight when they are voicing a character not themselves: Joe’s dad, local busybody Mrs Evans, social worker moustached Mrs Jacobs, shopkeeper Michael a lay preacher spouts Sunday bigotry, or Ryan, once Joe’s best friend but now someone who hounds him.

With a clicker they cue Sally Ferguson’s lighting changes marking new episodes and time shifts (Jess usually bagging it); this is simultaneously conscious performance and real re-enactment. Though they may differ a little over facts, this is their story. They tell it as they see it and directly to us but they don’t pour out their problems; you have to guess at Jessie’s family difficulties and Joe’s sexual confusion.

Zoe Cooper has written her main characters with remarkable understanding and great discretion, subtly changing as they get older. If other characters are more superficial, that’s because we only see them through these eyes of these two youngsters. Derek Bond’s pared-back production keeps the play's pulse going as it changes pace and direction.

Nothing distracts from the actors who both produce performances of great intensity. Nicola Coughlan gives Jessie one of those twittering little-girl voices that can become very irritating but despite often breakneck delivery is always understandable and she lends her the kind of smile that would win anyone over. Her layer of privileged precocity is a thin one. Rhys Isaac-Jones’s Joe often has a sad demeanour; with his slow Norfolk burr, he doesn’t rush into things, thinks first where she jumps in. He may not have the width of her experience but he knows his own world well.

Funny and touching, these performances are revealing and moving. The enthusiastic reaction they got from the audience was richly deserved. Jessie and Joe Forever has only about 80 minutes playing time but has a powerful impact despite its brevity and this production serves it superbly. It makes an excellent start to the Orange Tree’s new season and after Richmond begins a national tour: look out for it.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton