Sugary Rum Productions is about to present the Australian Premiere of JESS AND JOE FOREVER as part of 25a at Belvoir Downstairs.
Meet Jess and Joe. They want to tell you their story. Joe is Norfolk born and bred and wears wellies. Jess holidays there with her au pair and likes to sneak Spam behind the bus stop. This is a story of growing up, fitting in (or not), boys, girls, secrets, and maybe even love, but most of all, it’s about friendship. Spanning several summer holidays, Jess and Joe Forever is an unusual coming of age tale that explores what it means to belong somewhere, if you can really belong anywhere.
The Guide had the chance to speak with director Shaun Rennie as his cast and crew head into bump-in and production week.
SAG: Very excited to see this play … so it’s country boy meets city girl? How does this story unfold?
SHAUN: Why I love this play is because it sets up binaries. It sets up storytelling tropes that we all know: boy meets girl; country kid meets city kid; rich kid-poor kid. Jess and Joe both meet each over a series of summers in Norfolk where Jess is on her holidays and Joe lives there full time. So they develop this friendship over the course of their ‘tweens’, their adolescence essentially.
So what’s so beautiful about it is that it sets up this binaries that we think we know and through the course of the play, both of their lives are so much more complicated than we first glean. Even though those complications are tricky and, in different ways and different tellings of the tale, could be quite dramatic. Told through these children’s eyes, it remains very sweet, optimistic and human.
These darkest parts of their lives, sadder parts of their lives, the characters realise through the telling, that you can try to leave those bits out but it’s those bits that make the full story and the full humanness and the full experience, rich and valuable.
SAG: The cast plays an age range in Jess and Joe don’t they ?
SHAUN: Essentially the show is set up so Jess and Joe are here talking to the audience, and presenting their story of how they met and … potentially fell in love … or became as close as they are.
Yes, so the first scene is them at 9 ¾ and for the final scene they are 15 years old. So it’s right in that age range of that traumatic, terrifying, turbulent time of puberty.
There’s contemporary issues such as gender, eating disorders and alcoholism and family breakdown but at the heart of it it’s about these two kids who rescue each other. And as I keep saying to the cast, the show is more about that … the trauma of adolescence … than those other issues.
Everyone’s adolescence is traumatic, no one gets out of adolescence safe! (Laughs) Even the most conservative or “normal” of us has an adolescence that is a terrifying, scary time as you try and figure out who you are in the world .
SAG: So the “small town” ideas will resonate with city audiences because of our experiences ?
SHAUN: Absolutely . The rural conservative versus progressive thinking … I think we all experience that even if it’s just going home for an extended family dinner with members who are ideologically opposed! Those ideas are very familiar to us.
But also the idea of not feeling that you fit in. Which I really think that’s a universal trauma that everyone experiences at some time. It takes a while to find your tribe, the people who are going to love you for you, flaws and all. Not even the flaws , just for you. And the play is about how powerful that is when you do find someone who actually loves you, not despite of , but because of who you are. And loves and accepts you before you even love and accept yourself.
SAG: A show for any audience ?
SHAUN: It really is. Just a beautiful and sweet story. I would be hard not to be moved by their story.
And the story is told in this very sweet, non-threatening way by being told through the eyes of these children and that really gives us space to think about what really matters when we are arguing about certain political ideas or gender politics or issues than tend to split people and force them into corners. By bringing the ideas back down to kids, it makes you realise how silly some of those arguments are.
SAG: The characters speak directly to the audience don’t they?
SHAUN: Yes, it’s a combination. Direct address directly to the audience telling them their story, then they drop back in time and play themselves and each other and some other people in the village to sort of play act their story for us. Much like kids putting on a story in their backyard, it’s got that DIY kids telling a story in a sandpit vibe.
SAG: Thank you so much for your time, especially leading into production week. One last question, how did this particular play come to you?
SHAUN: Our production designer, Isabel Hudson, actually. She designed ‘The View Upstairs’ for me at the Hayes and most recently ‘Little Voice’ at the Eternity, more than a year ago she handed me the script and said you should read this play, it’s really sweet. She had seen it at Edinburgh a couple of years before and it just stayed with her. So I read the script and I couldn’t help but be moved by it, and then when the 25A model came about, it just really suits that model. So I pitched it!