An unforgettable two-hander about young friendship, Joe and Jess Forever has you drawn in, captivated, and left both heartbroken and elated.
Jess holidays with her in Norfolk during for two weeks every summer. As they are rather affluent (and a bit pretenscious) means Jess really is quite different from the other kids in the village. However, she manages to take an interest and build a friendship with Joe, the son of the farmer next door. As their friendship grows over the summer, it becomes more and more apparent that Joe is hiding a secret in Jess and Joe Forever.
One of the perks of having a partner who is also a theatre critic is that you can tag along as a +1 and never feel obliged to write a review afterwards. However, I should be firmly slapped on the wrist for not having written about Jess and Joe Forever when it premiered at the Orange Tree Theatre. The fact that it’s transferred up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year gives me the chance to atone for my sins, as well as revisit this wonderful play.
Zoe Cooper’s play is a wonderfully observed piece that really revels in young friendships and childhood life views. It’s full of youthful pratfalls and beautifully frank viewpoints which provides plenty of rather lovely comedy from start to finish. But the heart and humanity that Cooper writes with in Jess and Joe Forever is really what the play’s pull is, gently tugging at the heartstrings when the play deals with child resilience in the face of adversity: its a frankly gorgeous elegy on being an outsider. Whilst it’s true that there is a “secret” within Jess and Joe Forever that Cooper works towards revealing, you’re actually far more involved in the characters and their relationship. Because of this when the “reveal” does happen, it’s not shocking or sensational it’s blissful, galvanising so much of the endearing relationship between the two main characters.
Jess and Joe Forever is an incredibly clever and complex piece too. Firstly, the framing of the show being Jess and Joe presenting their story to the audience gives Cooper the opportunity to work with present strains and fissures in their relationship that cleverly colour and parallel the development of the story they’re telling. On top of this, there is an incredibly amount of subtle imagery throughout Jess and Joe Forever. Seeing this for the second time means I’ve been able to pick out and notice more of these immensely little ingenious devices which actually add a whole new dimension to Jess and Joe Forever. When you realise just how all the small things actually click into place it’s incredibly potent and cranks up the level of utter heartbreak and sheer joy.
It’s really great that Jess and Joe Forever still have the talents of Nicola Coughlan as Jess and Rhys Issac-Jones onboard. Not only do both of them manage to really nail their characters’ youthful way of behaving, they’ve got a fantastic rapport between them. For all you know Coughlan and Issac-Jones could actually be young teenagers who have been friends since forever as their performances are that polished and the chemistry between them that close-knit. The brilliance of their present on stage and the excellence of their performances meant that they bring the complexity and smarts of Cooper’s text to absolute shimmering life.
Jess and Joe Forever is bursting with human warmth and joyful observation. You can’t help but smile through the happy times and genuinely feel moved by the childhood pathos that undulates here. In short, it’s an utterly beauteous play that you’d be stone-hearted not to warm to, and hard pressed not to burst into tears.