Zoe Cooper’s Jess and Joe Forever, premiered in 2016, was my favourite show of the year. An exuberant hit of sweet, sticky romcom, and a nourishing examination of class, gender and rural English life, it fizzed with the joy of potential: both for the lives of its eponymous protagonists and the power of telling their story. Returning to the round of the Orange Tree Theatre, Cooper’s latest, Out of Water, revisits these themes and introduces us to a new trio of affectionately realised characters who excitedly (and sometimes frustratedly) share the task of narration.
Claire (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and her wife Kit (Zoe West) have moved from London to the coastal town of South Shields, in order to ‘spend more time outdoors’. Taking on a role as Inclusion Manager at a struggling state school, Claire encounters resistance from both staff and pupils, but believes her methods can make a real difference to the life of Fish (Tilda Wickham), a non-binary student and wild swimmer, who feels a deep affinity with aquatic creatures.
Under Guy Jones’ sensitive direction, it is a pleasure to spend time with these characters. They each wrestle with forms of acceptance, whether it is from society, one another, or the most slippery of them all, the self.
As a teenager, walking into school can feel like being frogmarched into a raging storm of hormones and anxiety, and Camilla Clarke’s design places us right at the heart of it: the sports hall. Stacked plastic chairs sit beneath a hanging ladder that could be mistaken for PE apparatus. The heightened intensity of school life, when it can feel as if your every move is under scrutiny by your peers, is re-lived by Claire, who feels uncomfortable as a queer woman relocated to a community she perceives as less progressive than her own.
Through the eyes of Claire, there’s a coldness to South Shields, found in the bitter weather and the freezing sea (starkly evoked by Jess Bernberg’s lighting design), but also in the way of life. This is never more apparent than when she messily guts a (real!) fish, her ineffectual attempts at dealing with a literal fish-out-of-water exposing her own metaphorical situation.
The script calls on the actors to multi-role as a townful of characters and the empathy they bring to each one, the generosity with which they reveal the capacity for good beneath the flaws, proves that, like water, this coldness can be warmed up. The Orange Tree have produced another heartfelt, humane piece of writing from Cooper. Here’s to a third.
Written by: Zoe Cooper
Directed by: Guy Jones
Box Office: 020 8940 3633
Booking Link: https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/out-of-water
Booking Until: 1 June 2019