A row of jars containing crustaceans in formaldehyde are pinned to the wall stage left. As the sole design feature against a backdrop of swirling sky and sea blue abstract shapes reassembling contour lines on an OS map, these objects not only locate us geographically to the British coastline, but – by the end of this 80-minute debut from actor and writer Sophie Wu – perfectly encompass the play’s themes and flaws.
We meet Jim and Ramona at two points in their lives, as troubled teenagers experiencing the first flush of love, lust and acceptance, and 15 years later, as damaged adults still trying to shift from under the weight of their earlier actions. Socially awkward Jim lives in a “shit” town on the Scottish coastline. He may hate it but the beach provides him with his passion – studying crustaceans and coastal erosion – and it is here that, one day in 1993, he bumps into Ramona, an English schoolgirl on a geography field trip, recently bullied and abandoned by the peers. The attraction is instant for these two outsiders as they bond in excruciatingly awkward style over the merits of fleeces and the genius of Enya.
The crustacean collection is adult Jim’s pride and joy. His dream of a dazzling career in naturalism have come to nothing; he remains caught in his hometown and, like his collection, seemingly “suspended in time”. Ramona, 31-years-old, still powerless against her childhood bully, has fared little better. That life map which should guide them towards their dreams has instead had them turning in circles around a fixed point in time: a fateful lie between young lovers.
It’s a depressing undercurrent to what is a laugh-out-loud coming of age tale, because the pair’s emotional inertia certainly isn’t matched by verbal reticence. Indeed, Ramona especially, creates a verbal avalanche of awkwardness, pretension, insecurity and bad jokes as this young writer gives her wave after wave of witty one-liners and killer-blow observances. It’s almost impossible not to grin. What is harder is believing that this damaged, social isolated duo could muster the mental dexterity and charm required to maintain these spontaneous-yet-sustained verbal fireworks.
The performers’ embodiment of the fudged fumblings of first love and lust, from some self-aware 90s moshing to clumsy snogging and hastily resolved first sex, however, feels painfully and hilariously real. Audience members of all ages wince with embarrassment and no little empathy. Both actors do much to breath life into these sometimes sparse characters. Ruby Bentall’s 16-year-old Ramona possesses a friendly kookiness which keeps us on her side, and the subtle change to hollowed-out adulthood – the eccentricity remaining but the charm gone – is subtle and believable. Joe Bannister’s affable face adds to the bumbling school anorak demeanour, and makes him a spot-on harmless nerd.
But it becomes harder to laugh along as the past unravels itself in the present. Jim, for all his gawkiness, is an actual arse; and their awkward charms wear thin as life-altering lies, and emotional and physical violence are revealed.
On the surface, Ramona Tells Jim is a well-crafted study of how a single misstep can throw off a whole life, yet it’s also made apparent that these kids’ lives were broken before they met. Mothers, both dead or abusive, get a passing mention, but no real attention. Questions hang in mid-air: Why did Ramona say that? Why did Jim do that? The characters are left in want of motivation for their extreme and extremely damaging actions and it’s frustrating there’s no time given over to the emotional roots of the story. So, while the fallout from Ramona and Jim’s fateful first meeting is neatly resolved, like Jim’s crustaceans collection it feels trapped outside its natural habitat –something of a curiosity.
Ramona Tells Jim is on at the Bush Theatre until 21 October 2017. Click here for more details.