The middle of the Traverse stage is a pile of churned up earth and Joe is digging, but not digging down. It’s a stage, after all. There is no down. Rhys Isaac-Jones is being Joe, and he is moving the earth around with the shovel, back and forth, widening the pile and flattening it out, and while Joe digs Jess watches him, and we watch her watching him.
The digging tells us things. This pile of dark earth on an otherwise non-naturalistic set – carpet tiles, chairs, microphones – tells us that the patch of Norfolk land the play’s set on is central to it, that this isn’t a play where the place is incidental. And it tells us that Jess’s lonely, affluent childhood is about preparing her for a lonely, affluent adulthood like the one enjoyed by her parents, while Joe’s childhood is filled with hard physical work, to prepare him for an adulthood that will be filled with work, like his dad’s.
Joe works, and Jess watches him work. But children can grow up to be more than their parents want or expect.
Jess and Joe Forever is a love story about two young people from completely different worlds meeting on neutral ground, in the wide open land between his home and her holiday home, and in the space between their completely separate lives that is a shared space made in the middle of their loneliness, a place where their two lonelinesses meet. It’s a play about the burn of that loneliness, the way it can settle in between your shoulder blades before you’re old enough to know that’s what it is, but it’s also about much more than you expect.
People have talked and will talk about the play having a ‘twist’ in it, but that isn’t quite the right word, because it’s something writer Zoe Cooper has sewn into every inch of the play. It would be fairer to say that there’s Something and then you find out What, and though this explains things you haven’t understood, it doesn’t redefine everything, it just clarifies. When the play is finished it is still a love story. Two young people are still in love and safe inside of that, like it’s a thing they’ve made together in the Norfolk countryside, a den where they can hide; the only problem is it makes it hard to talk about.
What I can say is this: it’s a wonderful, delicate play held together by two great performances, especially Nicola Coughlan’s prissy, vulnerable Jess. Jess seems to have come to us via Philosopher’s Stone-era Hermione Granger; she’s uptight and posh and soft-centred, she compulsively battles anxiety with scotch eggs and she’s somehow very funny, very real and very heart-breaking all at once.
And I can say that this is a show that’s lovely in the purest sense of the word: a beautifully, carefully made thing about the power of love to redeem and console. It’s thoughtful and transporting and completely elating, and don’t let the posters fool you into thinking this is a story that can be dismissed as some trad, boy-meets-girl, romcom-style thing that you’ve seen a hundred times before. It’s much more than that – but it also gives you a new appreciation for how fresh and exciting a simple love story can feel in the right hands.
Jess and Joe Forever is on at Traverse Theatre until 27th August. Click here for more details.