It surprising to realise that it’s already been two years since Paul Miller began his tenure as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree. With a mixture of revivals and new writing that’s encompassed everything from sterling Shaws (Widowers’ Houses, The Philanderer) to hipster-friendly hype-fests (Alistair MacDowall's Pomona) unforgettably powerful dramas (Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone) to possibly the most delightful French Without Tears ever, Miller’s programming has showed continuity with his predecessor Sam Walters’s while also branching out in some new directions, especially through an emphasis on co-productions.
Time, continuity and change, are among the concerns of the play – a premiere – which opens Miller’s third year as OT Artistic Director. Commissioned by Old Vic New Voices, and co-produced with Farnham Maltings, Zoe Cooper’s Jess and Joe Forever centres on two young people as they grow up, spanning several summers in Norfolk, that take our protagonists from ages 9 to 15. Jess is a tubby little girl who, neglected by her parents, holidays in the village with her au pair, while Norfolk-born Joe helps on his father’s farm. As the two gradually edge into friendship, a portrait emerges of two outsiders challenged with making their way in the world against the sometimes harsh judgements of the community.
With its rural setting, a running time of just an hour and ten minutes, and its intimate focus on two characters, Jess and Joe Forever is a modest work but it’s one whose themes run deeper than many pushier, ostensibly more “ambitious” plays. The premise may suggest the low-key naturalism of Robert Holman (whose German Skerries was revived at the Orange Tree earlier this year) but what makes the play distinctive is its structure and narrative approach. Jess and Joe Forever mobilises narration and audience address to become a play that’s very much about the construction of a story, as Jess and Joe take us through their impressions and experiences, and, sometimes, debate how best to present those shared memories.
Rather like Jess, who earnestly declares herself a vegetarian while eagerly consuming a scotch egg, it’s an odd combination of archness and innocence that Cooper achieves here. Initially the archness seems to be winning out in Derek Bond’s production and James Perkins’s spare design, with its representative small pile of sand, and two microphones through which the protagonists speak when they morph into (their versions of) other characters.
But while the self-consciousness about storytelling has some drawbacks (resulting in some sketchy characterisations and underdramatised moments), it becomes more beguiling as the evening progresses, adding up to a mischievous (yet mature) spirit of play that feels appropriate for a work concerned with imagination, transition and transformation. One particular surprise reveal will be the play’s main talking point but what’s admirable is the scrupulous way in which Cooper avoids an “issue-led” approach to the material, opting instead for a more quirky, personal and poetic perspective. Her dialogue is lively and characterful, with great attention to detail that sparks the characters to life.
Bond’s production succeeds in keeping the transitions fluid, with great help from Sally Ferguson’s lighting and from Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones’s terrific performances, which make the evening a beautifully textured duet. Coughlan is particularly adorable, as she reveals the neediness and vulnerability underpinning Jess’s penchant for showing off. Quietly subversive, not without pain, Jess and Joe Forever truly earns its final joyous flourish. It’s a lovely, loving work that makes you eager to see what Cooper will do next.
Jess and Joe Forever is booking at the Orange Tree until 8 October. The production then tours until November. Further information here.