Jess is a city girl who lives on artisanal scotch eggs. Joe is a country boy, digging holes with his Dad in the flat plains of Norfolk. As puberty upsets the natural order of things, an unlikely alliance is forged. But don’t be fooled: Zoe Cooper’s new play at The Orange Tree is far more than your average boy meets girl story. The love chronicled on the stage here is one of transformative magic, as the relationship between Jess and Joe helps them both to become everything they ever wanted to be.
Jess and Joe Forever is a that rare thing, a well-made play. Beautifully crafted, sweet and succinct, the story sells itself as ice cream on a dull summer’s day, but is gradually revealed as something much more nutritious. In Derek Bond’s canny production, the titular couple bound across a mud drenched stage, enthusiastically building up the story of their relationship. Tape recorders, microphones and remote light switches all aid in their elaborate reconstruction, but the artifice wavers, the narrative bends and breaks. The fragility of these characters, their convictions and their relationship shines through. The delicacy of the production is sometimes punctured by the overly enthusiastic dramaturgy (those microphones are pretty loud), but the intimacy of the space, set in the round with little room for Jess or Joe to hide, gently fans the tender flame of their young love.
Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones capture the gracelessness of adolescence with gusto. Coughlan’s performance may be the shrillest I’ve experienced in 2016, an honest to goodness compliment in the context of this show. Isaac-Jones is the picture of discomfort, all stooped and fidgeting, with limbs too long and voice too low. In a story that’s about transformation: of mind, of soul, of body, these two adult performers realise that on-the-cusp physicality and navigate it deftly, and it’s a joy to watch.
But if we’re going to talk about this show, it’s important that we talk about the bodies that perform it. Jess and Joe Forever is deceptive in its simplicity, for locked within the layers of sweetness and awkward love there is a powerful core: one of the characters is not who they appear to be. Far be it from me, a lowly, mouthy critic, to spoil the big reveal, but in our efforts to conceal the story’s twist a much larger question goes unasked: should a transgender character be portrayed by a cis actor? (Sorry, that’s probably a spoiler.) In a play that’s primarily about discomfort in one’s body, about realising and becoming your true self and opening up that self to those around you, does the play lose the strength of its convictions when the message doesn’t carry through in practise?
Since The Danish Girl was released in cinemas last year, the topic of trans representation in popular culture has been a hot button one: why cast the likes of Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto in roles that don’t align with their own gender identities? The insistence is often that sufficient trans actors of considerable talent don’t exist, some mealy mouthed reasoning considering that the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama launched their groundbreaking Transgender Acting course last year. Worse, some claim that a high profile actor will allow a movie to be financed, to reach a bigger audience, to get the transgender story and experience ‘out there’ to the normies.
So what of the theatre? We have no concerns of stardom, a production does not need to book Tom Cruise for a run at the Orange Tree. Naturally a left leaning, liberal medium, there is no concern of lynching or picket lines outside the theatre. I don’t want to presume the lengths to which the production did or did not go to in order cast a transgender actor in the relevant role, but as the play opens up and reveals its butterfly-like beauty to us, it feels like a disservice to its message that the representation here does not match up.
Those who write and talk about the theatre love to wax lyrical about liveness. It’s a vague notion to celebrate, I don’t much consider the ‘liveness’ of my everyday life as I stand waiting for a cramped and sweaty tube. But one place where ‘liveness’ comes in handy is representation. We get to see Michelle Terry, in the flesh, roaring and commanding armies with the ferocity of any cock-endowed king. We get to see the cracked and fading femininity of Blanche DuBois and the tragedy that’s locked within it. As Jess and Joe Forever unfurls its paper wings and learns to fly, we see a body that’s pretending, not transformed. We stand and applaud a brave, triumphant story, but the subject’s not invited to the party.
Jess and Joe Forever is on until 8th October 2016 at the Orange Tree Theatre. Click here for more details.