Jess and Joe Forever
by Zoe Cooper
A Rural Gavotte
Once TLT lived in a one-horse village (the horse belonged to someone else). There was a pub, a few residential roads, the overgrown tracks of disused ralway lines axed by the Beeching cuts and a bridge from which the occasional de-nested fledgling used to fall which she tried to nurse back to health.
You had to climb over several stiles through fields of sheep or cows - according to the season - to reach the next village. Here was the church, the post office cum shop and the primary school, so small two years were put together in one classroom (Old fogyishly she declares: "it never did us any harm!" ;)) So we felt amply qualified for Jess and Joe Forever, set in a Norfolk village.
Except of course in TLT's past house prices hardly moved, credit was scarcely discussed and banks were for the monthly salaries of parents (mostly fathers) or for businesses. Secondary schools were the big town secondary modern or the two single-sex public schools. The latter were kept afloat by fees which the armed forces paid outright for the children of the military and the local authority's payments for local kids like yours truly who passed the eleven plus.
Joe is a scrawny motherless farmer's son, while Jess is a "townie" whose parents have a holiday home in the unnamed hamlet, a villa on Lake Garda and a live-in nanny for their plump, good-natured daughter.
In some ways, this is a play which touches on the new class system: the self-conscious Jess knowing but not quite understanding why she is better travelled, has an Eastern European nanny and why her boarding school is viewed as a superior sort of establishment.
Meanwhile Joe has a secret, revealed late in the hour long play which makes him less rash, more reserved and watchful than Jess who is a little girl eager to please and impress and a tad lonely. She is almost like some over-eager playwright or screenwriter, for even at nine (and three quarters), she knows the term "inciting incident".
Indeed it struck your apple-cheeked theatregoing duo that this little tale of class, nature, changing seasons, prejudice, literature and economic downturns might work very well as a movie. Rooted in Norfolk, but surely equally at home in Florida or the deep south of America?
Like a lot of new writing nowadays, it has a slightly studied but pleasingly rhythmic script self-consciously threaded with Ovidian and novelistic references. Yet it also allows for charming, well-paced performances, as the protagonists awkwardly dance verbally around each other - Nicola Coughlan as blonde Jess and Rhys Isaac-Jones as dark and thoughtful Joe.
It's precisely paced by director Derek Bond on James Perkins' formal pastel grey, green and yellow chequer board set, heaped with untidy earth from the almost-opening scene as Joe digs cattle troughs interrupted by the curious, friendly Jess.
The scenes over the years are delineated by a rather self-conscious clicking of fingers and flash of lights. We are introduced into the geography of the village. At its centre the church with the lacuna, left by a vicar dealing with more than one parish, filled by those in the vilage who feel qualified to be lay preachers and provide the village's moral compass.
Meanwhile the children's lives seem to be mapped out by their education - Jess to a fee-paying boarding school, while Joe's position appears more nebulous.
There is at least one glimpse of an above-average intelligence but a rather more puzzling reference to more mundane school affairs which makes him seem a unique pupil - the reasons for which are eventually revealed.
Jess and Joe Forever is a likeable jigsaw of a play with strong central performances. The writing could afford to relax a little, over intent sometimes on breaking the fourth wall.
Nevertheless the sensitive production and the script's appealing grace attracts an amber/green light from your yeoman theatre reviewer TLT and her little automotive sidekick ploughing the theatrical furrows.