Writer: Zoe Cooper
Director: Lotte Wakeham
Designer: Frankie Bradshaw
Lighting: Tigger Johnson
Composer and Sound: Andy Graham
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
It’s not really surprising that Zoe Cooper’s play earned her the reward of Most Promising Playwright in the Off-West End Awards a year or two ago. It appears slight – and is so in terms of length, cast size and simplicity of set – but it is as clever as it is charming and deals with major issues beneath its lovably playful surface. Since 2016 Jess and Joe Forever has toured widely, from Richmond’s Orange Tree to the Edinburgh Fringe, but this new production by Lotte Wakeham is the regional premiere – and absolutely true to the elusive spirit of the play.
As the audience enters, two young people are colouring in a notice announcing the title of the play. They look convincingly young; later on it emerges that, as narrators, they are 15 or 16. The programme states, “We’re Jess and Joe. We want to tell you our story,” and that’s just what they do, sharing the narration, tripping over each other’s words, arguing over bits one of them wants to leave out. At one point Jess goes to see Joe’s father and Joe waits to act out his father. Carried away and building up her part, Jess booms into the male role. After some hesitation, Joe realizes that he needs to become Jess – and he simpers coyly before grabbing back the paternal role as soon as possible.
The story begins with Jess at nine years old watching boys, one of them Joe, swimming in the river. She is a rich, spoilt city girl whose parents send her to Norfolk each year with her au pair (Joe prefers the term “nanny”) to learn how to be a little girl before whisking her off to Italy for her “real” holiday. Shortly she is to go to an expensive boarding school. Joe, on the other hand, is a local, clearly something of a misfit, not deprived, but anything but rich, helping his widowed father make something of his farm – and he has not been further than Norwich.
Plays about two totally contrasted people becoming friends are not exactly uncommon and some of the developments over six years are predictable. Others are definitely not so, but the surprises are brought out with a gentle subtlety – no astonishing dramatic revelations, merely a gradual realisation. Cooper is assured in her ability to knit in serious themes with a jokey presentation. For instance, Jess on her first entrance claims to be vegetarian (appropriately metropolitan middle class) but is eating a Scotch egg (“mostly egg”) and is going home to venison pie (“I’ll probably just eat the crust”) – good gags, but in the course of the play Cooper also takes her eating disorder seriously. Engaging throughout, but able to keep the audience holding its collective breath in the later stages, the play deals with issues of gender and intolerance without losing its lightness of tone.
Cooper is good at sketching in the narrow-minded villagers or Jess’ self-obsessed and easily bored parents with the merest reference, but the play stands or falls on the performances of Jess and Joe – and Kate Hargreaves and Misha Butler are excellent. Hargreaves’ skill with the self-puncturing aside keeps her snobbery this side of offensive and Butler makes niceness interesting. Both squabble sweetly over the narrative and share their story in knowing complicity with the audience.
Runs until 10 November 2018 | Image: Contributed