Zoe Cooper’s very funny, very truthful, and very haunting play, Jess and Joe Forever, is utterly beautiful. Poetic, sad, uplifting, and rooted deep in the ways of the country (Cows are key) this is a completely engaging and thoroughly entertaining slice of theatrical ambrosia. It’s rare to watch men wipe away tears before their crying wives/girlfriends catch them showing emotions at the theatre, but not here. Expect many tears – mostly of pure, unbridled joy.
At just over an hour, Zoe Cooper’s play, Jess and Joe Forever, is that almost extinct form of theatre: fresh, funny, fragile and, ultimately, insightful and inspirational. Cooper finds a unique theatrical language to tell a sweet story about identity and expectation, city and country, love and friendship, boys and girls.
Director Derek Bond aims for sureness and simplicity – and gets it. Two shimmering, wonderfully naive, and impressively delicate characters are brought into clear focus by Nicola Couglan and Rhys Isaac-Jones. Everything here clicks and achieves a resonant, deeply felt sense of a shared secret. The audience becomes the confidante of Jess and Joe; as their friendship blooms, so the audience becomes more involved in their stories.
And what stories!
Joe is a country lad, a whizz with cattle, and he works the family farm with his father, his mother having died. Jess is an urban Princess in the making, but with an adventurous and non-conformist side. Jess and her family holiday each year in the area where Joe’s farm is located.
When both are nine, they meet. Joe is playing with other lads in the river. He is climbing a tree, preparing to jump. His mates are skinny-dipping to Jess’ wide-eyed bemusement. In the tree, in his speedos, preparing to jump, Joe’s eyes meet Jess’ – he jumps and something joins them together, unspoken and powerful.
As the years roll on, their play-friend status morphs into something more meaningful, more life enhancing. Each learns invaluable life lessons from the other and each takes real strength from the other’s constancy and critical appraisal.
Cooper’s writing is soaked in acceptance and individuality and Coughlan and Isaac-Jones give performances that sparkle with the spiky edge of adolescence and the wisdom of the unburdened. Both performers are overwhelmingly appealing, flaws and all, and the characters they create pulse with life.
The play has its surprises too and Cooper and Bond ensure that expectations are overturned and realities faced – but those are matters it is best to experience in the theatre as they unfold. Suffice to say that this truly gorgeous play is more powerful than many in-your-face, noisy productions with tolerance as their message.
The acting is unpretentious, unaffected and utterly captivating. It is impossible not to love this Jess and Joe and impossible to forget them once you leave the theatre. Coughlan and Isaac-Jones are simply terrific in every way and they play off each other quite beautifully (and smartly), creating layered, pain and joy infused characters of real depth.
Gentle but constant mood swings mark out different aspects of the narrative so, by the end, you have a clear sense that you have been privy to direct storytelling about the lives of two remarkable, but unknown, people. The fourth wall is pulled down; light and sound cues delineate chapters of the interlocking reminiscences; microphones have a curious chameleon-like ability; a cow trench proves a place of infinite possibility.
It is no exaggeration to say that there was scarcely a dry eye in the house when the curtain fell and rarely do audiences react so warmly as they did to this theatrical treat. It speaks to everyone, everywhere.
The production is a co-production between Orange Tree Theatre (which, under Paul Miller, consistently punches above its weight) and Farnham Maltings and it will tour the UK following the Richmond season. Make haste to see it. It will warm your heart and nurture your soul.