Sweet, charming coming of age tale

Jess and Joe Forever is on at the Stephen Joseph
Jess and Joe Forever is on at the Stephen Joseph

Quirky and charming coming of age comedy-drama Jess and Joe Forever is the parting gift of associate assistant director Lotte Wakeham who leaves the Stephen Joseph Theatre early next year.

Lotte has been ‘on attachement’ to the theatre for a year learning the role of a resident artistic director.

Her productions, as a freelance, have graced – and that is the right word – the Round stage before. She directed the under-rated And The World Goes Round and last year’s weepy hit Di and Viv and Rose.

Jess and Joe is staged in the McCarthy Studio of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

What the three productions have in common are graceful staging, a light touch but with a firmness of purpose to get to the heart of the story and wring every drop of emotion – be it bitter, sweet or both –from it.

This is the regional premiere of Jess and Jo, an award-winning piece by Zoe Cooper.

It is the story of a friendship between middleclass, snobby, bright Jess and down-to-earth, dim but nice Joe.

They meet in a Norfolk village where Joe lives on a farm with his widowed dad and Jess visits with her well-off but distant parents once a year.

They meet first at nine-years-old and the curtain – or rain – comes down on their story when they reach 16.

The story is presented as a narrative – direct to the audience – by two actors: Misha Butler as Joe and Kate Hargreaves as Jess.

Both performers are a delight as they vie to tell their stories – squabbling over who plays what part and which bits to leave in or gloss over.

They multi-role from a nosey shopkeeper to an evangelical village councillor, from gruff farmer to cocky teenager and get a turn at playing each other.

Jess relishes playing Joe – Joe cannot get rid of the burden of being Jess fast enough – making the exchange a highlight of a play full of lovely moments.

It starts as the story of a naive, plump ebullient city girl – Jess – meets a shy, awkward country boy – Joe and with the clash of cultures and class that brings.

Jess is a spoiled public schoolgirl with a vocubulary well beyond her nine years who enjoys holidays in Italy and is brought up by a succession of au-pairs.

Joe is used to coping with death – be it of his mum or animals – and helps his dad round the farm and staying away from the bullying older boys. They tease and flirt with each other with Jess taking the lead, as girls are apt to do. So far, so cliched.

Slowly it unfolds as a study of two complex, confused, scared children trying to find their way in a society that finds both of them – in their individual ways – strange.

Questions of eating disorders, gender, loneliness, isolation, prejudice, fear of the different and alcholism emerge as Jess and Joe tell the story of their friendship.

The set is a delight – a riverbank and fishing pots are all that are needed to transport the audience to the rural idyll where the, at times nightmarish, coming of age tale unfolds.

Hargreaves maintains a perky, bright-as-a-button demeanour throughout – making the telling of her troubled soul all the more heart-breaking.

Butler’s soft Norfolk drawl never falters or alters as he tells of his own experiences of persecution and prejudice.

Be prepared to laugh, cry and, like a carving of names surrounded by a heart on a tree – permanently affected by this seemingly simple story of friendship. It’s upbeat sweetness will pierce your heart.

It runs until Saturday November 10.

Tickets: 01723 370541 and online at www.sjt.uk.com