Review: Jess & Joe Forever (Sugary Rum Productions / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 13 – 30, 2019
Playwright: Zoe Cooper
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Nyx Calder, Julia Robertson
Images by Kate Williams

Theatre review
The children are on a mission to tell their story. It takes place in Joe’s hometown of Norfolk, where Jess had begun spending her summer holidays at 9 years-old. The two become fast friends, and go through thick and thin together. In Zoe Cooper’s Jess & Joe Forever, they find a way to recount seminal events of their young lives, like an informal kind of psychotherapy, not because there is anything wrong with them per se, but because the world seems intent on inflicting a very hard time on them both. Cooper’s writing is extraordinarily tender, beautifully authentic in the way these young voices are rendered. Its structure is suspenseful and intriguing, for a narrative that does much more than entertain.

Director Shaun Rennie takes great care to manufacture a sensitive atmosphere in which we can only receive Jess and Joe with hearts wide open, and in the process, come to an intimate understanding of how children respond to the bigger world, and all the the difficult things we cannot shield them from. The emotional crescendo Rennie is able to build into the plot of Jess & Joe Forever, is representative of theatre at its most captivating.

It is a wonderfully designed production. Isabel Hudson’s playground is perfectly proportioned for the small auditorium, with quaint illustrations along the backdrop reflecting an innocence so crucial to the play. Lights by Benjamin Brockman help to amplify the emotions of both characters and audience, so that none of the sentimentality escapes us. Ben Pierpoint’s work on sound provides for the mind’s eye, an evocative picture of what that small English seaside town must look like, and his music gives the show a sense of elevation, with its unmistakable sophistication.

We fall in love right away with the very excellent cast, both actors adorable and completely believable as our little hosts. As Jess, Julia Robertson brings to the role a strength and defiance that absolutely charms. Her effervescence is infectious, and even though her penchant for machine gun speed recitation of lines can sometimes be a challenge, the precision of her approach is unequivocally affecting. Nyx Calder is perfect as Joe, disarmingly poignant but also effortless and delightful in their depiction of youthful purity. The extraordinary vulnerability that Calder is able to convey, fills the gaps purposefully left behind by the playwright, impeccably addressing parts of Joe’s story where words can prove inadequate.

Watching these kids, we feel compelled to protect them, but we also know that their struggles will make them into resilient and wise adults. It is true that there is much sadness in the world. The societies we manufacture often seem to be endlessly flawed, and the thought that those who have done no harm, would still be subject to injustice and inequity, is devastating. Some of us will respond with resignation, but some will fight for things to be better. Jess & Joe Forever is bittersweet, because its anguish is palpable, but it also provides inspiration, so that we can know to always do the right thing.

www.facebook.com/sugaryrumproductions | www.belvoir.com.au