Jess and Joe first meet when they are eight when Jess goes to stay in a small farming village in Norfolk with her au pair for two weeks before she flies from London to spend “quality time” with her parents in Italy. While hiding in the bushes wishing she had someone to play with, she spies Joe playing in the river with a bunch of other boys and loses a little piece of her heart there and then.
We see their courtship unfold over the subsequent years as they turn into teenagers. Joe works on his dad’s farm when not at school wile Jess has been told that she must play properly and behave like a child for as long as possible. These are charming, funny, sweet scenes where Jess’ so-called vegetarian, lacrosse-playing life jostles against a life built around plodding on with what needs to get done.
In fact, the beautifully conveyed innocence of childhood soon evaporates in the face of unpalatable reality. And then there’s the twist. A revelation so seismic that it leaves you retracing everything you’ve just seen to question how you could have missed it. You’re not getting any spoilers but this twist is the story’s sucker punch.
Everything about this show is beautiful. The set (James Perkins) is careful, evocative and tidy with only the heap of earth at its centre symbolising the trampling of their hopes as their lives unfurl in front of them. The production is tidily and compassionately directed by Derek Bond. Zoe Cooper’s script is understated, funny and endearing. And Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones are superb as our 8 year old going on teenage protagonists.
The cleverness of this script and this production lies in the detail. Our vegetarian heroine blithely announces that she’s having venison pie for dinner, for example. The peculiar train smash of childhood now – the pressure to be older but the better-kept-hidden yearning to still be a child – is charmingly observed. They’d both won my heart ten minutes in – Joe with shy diffidence and a lovely lilting Norfolk accent and Jess with the vaguely obstreperous confidence of the privileged child who doesn’t think life could get any better.
The twist takes this captivatingly sweet love story and transforms it into a yearning plea for a better world. I loved this love story. We need more like it.