Zoe Cooper’s Jess and Joe Forever is a coming-of-teenage tale

Words Neil McKelvie

Zoe Cooper’s Jess and Joe Forever is a coming-of-teenage tale chronicling the burgeoning relationship between a city girl and a country boy as they move from childhood to adolescence over the course of six summer encounters.

It’s astonishing to think that Artistic Director Paul Miller is embarking on his third season at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. From inauspicious beginnings – on his first day in the job Miller learned that the Arts Council was withdrawing all funding – it has been a period of exciting, critically acclaimed re-invention, albeit one paying due respect to the theatre’s heritage. 

By turns quirky and touching, unexpectedly powerful and thought-provoking – and superbly acted – this is a hugely enjoyable production. 

Now aged 15, Jess (Nicola Coughlan) and Joe (Rhys Isaac-Jones) narrate the story themselves, reflecting on their lives, playing other characters (and each other), acting out specific incidents and talking to the audience directly as they bicker about shared memories. They first meet aged nine. Neglected by her parents, Jess is staying with her au pair at the family cottage in Norfolk before her ‘real’ holiday at their Italian villa. She attends a posh convent school, speaks with a plummy accent and is – or so she thinks – the epitome of cosmopolitan cool. 

Joe is the son of a local widowed farmer, he is gauche and earnest and has never been further than Norwich. The two couldn’t be more different in terms of class, wealth, education or prospects. But nothing is quite what it seems. As they meet each summer, their ‘Odd Couple” friendship blossoms into something deeper as long-buried secrets are revealed and they dare to discover who and what the other really is… 

Even though the play’s running time is only 70 minutes, the story never feels remotely under-powered; on the contrary, it is perfectly paced and packs a potent theatrical punch. Zoe Cooper writes with humour, charm and assurance, creating an intimate, magical world, cleverly confounding our natural assumptions and adeptly capturing the uncertainties and awkwardness of teenage life. 

In this she is aided by Derek Bond’s subtle direction and, most impressively, her two actors. Coughlan and Isaac-Jones are superb, utterly convincing at every age they play, and both clearly destined for big things ahead. The Orange Tree has already notched up one West End transfer under Paul Miller’s regime (Pomona); with writing and performances of this quality, Jess and Joe Forever deserves to follow in its footsteps.

Until 8 October, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Tel: 020 8940 3633, www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk 

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