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Jess and Joe Forever review at Orange Tree Theatre, London – ‘heartrending and heartwarming’

Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones in Jess and Joe Forever at Orange Tree Theatre, London. Photo: The Other Richard
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Adolescence is unavoidably about transformation, but in ways we neither want nor ask for: too tall, or not tall enough, too lumpy or too scrawny, overwhelmed by a sudden pulse of hormones. It’s a hell of an introduction to adulthood. Zoe Cooper captures it all with pinpoint precision in Jess and Joe Forever, a coming-of-teenage tale set in the fens.

Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones play Jess and Joe, accidental friends who meet when they’re nine. Jess is holidaying with her au pair, away from her London suburban home. She’s at prep school, she speaks Italian. Joe is the son of a farmer, complete with broad East Anglian accent. He also has a secret. Their friendship unfolds over several liminal years.

Jess and Joe break through the fourth wall to argue about each scene, and director Derek Bond’s messy, playful production adds some clever touches: the pair change the lighting with a clicker and use mic stands as fence posts and lecterns. It’s a self conscious production, perfectly underscoring the self consciousness of adolescence.

Coughlan and Isaac-Jones are a hugely endearing duo, capturing tween awkwardness perfectly, moving their limbs like the lumbering, alien attachments they seem. Coughlan has a strong comic presence as a precocious middle class child, regurgitating the half-digested ideology of her parents.

As twee and gentle as this pastoral drama almost is, the play – like its characters – transforms. Gender and eating disorders are important here, but it doesn’t feel issues-driven. The lightness of touch and splashes of humour quietly, charmingly, deftly coalesce into heartrending and heartwarming beauty. Even if it’s about class divides at the beginning, by the end, and by slow accretion, it becomes more universal than that.

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The trauma of adolescence is beautifully explored in this messy, playful production