Review: Jess and Joe Forever, Orange Tree Theatre ‘An Absolute Gem’

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Whatever is in the water at Orange Tree Theatre, they really need to bottle it and sell it by the lorry-load. Every month a new show, and each show an absolute gem. And this new play from Zoe Cooper, Jess and Joe Forever, is another one that I would recommend unequivocally.

And I would recommend it not just because it is brilliant – which it is – and not simply because its themes are impressively both current and timeless – which they are – but also because its execution is terrific.

Jess and Joe are girl and boy, childhood friends, but from different sides of the track. Jess (Nicola Coughlan) has rich parents, an au pair, and when she isn’t at her posh all-girls school, she’s on holiday in Italy. Joe (Rhys Isaac-Jones), on the other hand, is a self-conscious lad, lacking Jess’s confidence. He’s the son of a Norfolk farmer – his mother having died when he was young – and his global horizons are not as broad as his friend’s.

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The two meet, infrequently, during Jess’s brief summer trips to Norfolk, where her family have a second home. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a tale as old as time. What writer Zoe Cooper explores in this short play (running time is only about an hour) is how coming-of-age, and finding peace in your own skin, is a lot more complicated than rom-coms and slushy films make out. And in the modern world, even finding your own identity can be brutal.

I’m reluctant to say any more as, much like Torn at the Royal Court, some things should be left for the audience. However, I absolutely do want to talk about how warm and engaging the production is.

The only characters in this play are Jess and Joe, and they speak directly to us, performing – if you will – in their own play about their friendship. The two actors are terrific – Nicola Coughlan perfectly inhabits the complexity of a young girl who’s overconfident in her educational and social superiority, but utterly insecure about her appearance.  And Rhys Isaac-Jones’s awkwardness is palpable. He’s awkward because he’s a teenage boy, he’s awkward because his best mate is a bully – as is his Dad – and he’s awkward because he doesn’t understand why Jess wants to spend time with him.

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Director Derek Bond has shaped the production perfectly. With just a sparse set and a few props to aid them, the two characters tell their stories from their point of view. They finish each other’s sentences much in the way old couples do. They rib each other, and tease and mock with all the ease of the best of friends. And that sharing of the deepest of cuts and the most private of secrets reveals an intimacy between the two that pulls at the heart strings.

At the end of the show I had a lump in my throat and tell-tale signs of a little bit of damp in the eye. And I’m a pretty callous critic so for this cast and these creatives to touch the remnants of my heart shows that this is a very special show indeed.

Orange Tree Theatre, London to October 8, 2016

All photos by The Other Richard.

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