Jess and Joe Forever is a new play by Zoe Cooper (Nativities and Man on the Moon) which is currently touring the country after its month-long run at The Orange Tree theatre in Richmond. Set in rural Norfolk, the narrative follows Jess and Joe growing up between the ages of nine and fifteen. The premise involves two characters who couldn’t be any more different: Joe is the country boy who spends his holidays working on his father’s farm, while Jess is the middle class girl who begrudges the fortnight in Norfolk that precedes ‘quality time’ with her parents in Italy. The two embark on an unlikely friendship, with much left unsaid, and many coded references that only become apparent as the play progresses. The intimate venue of Live Theatre was perfect for the play’s two-night stint in Newcastle and it was warmly-received by the audience on opening night. Having just two performers and a simple set gave a homemade feel to the production; this suited the organic appearance of a narrative orchestrated by the central characters.
In some ways this was a typical coming-of-age story, complete with awkward conversations, detached relationships with parents, and class struggles. However, Cooper was unafraid to delve into somewhat unchartered territory, demonstrating commendable ambition beneath a romantic-comedy front. It becomes apparent that Joe has a secret that is deeply troubling him and explains certain confusing references during the first half of the play. Whilst this reveal is integral to the story, the slow unfurling of Joe’s secret is secondary to the relationship of the two, allowing the play to remain more universally identifiable. The use of direct address, where the characters explain the scene and what they were thinking at the time, gave colour to the performance, and helped to underline the stark differences between Jess and Joe’s respective upbringings. It additionally made it seem as though the characters were in total control of their story, before more seeps in than they were initially intending to reveal. The theme that life is infinitely more complicated than it first appears runs throughout the play, and is emphasised by the contrasting simplicity of the attitudes and thoughts during the initial scenes.
It’s not all serious though and there were many laughs to be had over the hour-long play. The eccentricities of both rural and middleclass life were gently mocked and explored. Rhys Isaac-Jones plays Joe as wonderfully deadpan complete with a comedy Norfolk ‘farmer’ accent, while Nicola Coughlan makes Jess’ eager earnestness funny and endearing in its naivety. The secondary characters were played between Isaac-Jones and Coughlan and were responsible for much of the humour, the caricatures allowing the audience to see them through the young protagonists’ eyes.
The play’s uplifting climax left me emotional, along with several other audience members who were visibly reaching for the tissues. It was a thoroughly enjoyable production, with two extremely likeable leads. It was a great way to begin my time blogging for Live Theatre and I hope the next one is just as good!
Live Theatre Blogger
Jess and Joe is still on tour, and can be seen at Watford Palace Theatre (Tuesday 1 & Wednesday 2 November), Farnham Maltings (Thursday 3 November) and The Studio @TPS, Petersfield, Hampshire (Friday 4 November). Find out more about the tour dates.