Simon Ward reviews Jo and Sam Find Themselves In Woking at The Hen and Chickens Theatre
A bare stage, save for a couple of chairs and a projector screen. Suddenly the screen lights up, Edmund Jolliffe’s music kicks in and we are taken through a rather good whistle stop tour of the delights of Woking, finally arriving at the Lightbox gallery where a man and a woman are both engrossed in the same artwork. An exchange of views on how to read the sitter’s ambiguous expression – he, more positive and upbeat, she finding evidence of suffering – leads to a coffee and our story begins to unfold. So far, perhaps, just another meet-cute rom-com, pleasant enough maybe, but surely we have seen this all before?
Well, there are a few twists which raise this above the norm. First of all, the play is written (by James Woolf) in rhyming couplets. You may not immediately notice, but after a while it becomes obvious and adds to the fun – the comic straining for tricky rhymes, the rhymes which are funnier precisely because you can see them coming. As well as the pleasure of the language, this also creates a distancing effect – we know that this is a piece of artifice, not a slice of life. That effect is compounded by the quasi-Brechtian techniques which the actors deploy – the fourth wall is repeatedly broken as they bicker over the staging and whether to read or obey the stage directions. Each scene is announced with a summary title, again giving us the pleasure of anticipating how the scene will play out from a tantalising title. And the charm, warmth and chemistry between the actors themselves – Phoebe Marshall as Jo and Kieran Dee as Sam – under the expert direction of Katherine Reilly makes the whole thing an utterly beguiling delight. One scene in particular, where Phoebe/Jo pretends to lose her lines, can only be pulled off if everyone involved has utmost confidence.
A further example of the avoidance of cliché is the fact there is not a single joke made at the expense of Woking or suburbia, merely an acceptance of the expense of London, and a recognition that you can make the best of wherever you are. Indeed, one might even leave the theatre with a sneaking fondness for the place. And not, as I had imagined on initially hearing the title, merely as a place where you might wake up in horror having slept through your stop an hour ago.
Regular readers will know that I am a sucker for a good rom-com. And no doubt there will be naysayers, who will still reject this as trite and stale, notwithstanding everything I have said. But approach it with an open heart, and you can only admire the depth and freshness that the writer and performers manage to mine out of situations we have seen before. And you will leave the theatre with hope for new possibilities and maybe even renewed desire to find yourself again.
Jo and Sam Find Themselves In Woking runs at The Hen and Chickens Theatre Bar, 109 St Pauls Road, London N1 2NA until 23rd April