“Taylor and Schmidt have great chemistry. Both wholly own their roles, playing two very different women”
Juniper (Stella Taylor) has never been attracted to men. Jules (Gabriella Schmidt) had no idea she could be attracted to women. That changed when she met Juniper. This one-hour play follows the progression of Juniper and Jules, from early infatuation into the rougher waters of a long-term relationship. It explores the question of whether it’s possible to be committed without being exclusive, and asks how much one should be willing to sacrifice for a partner (if anything).
Juniper & Jules is a series of snapshots of a modern lesbian couple: their dating, their sex, their arguments. Writer Stephanie Martin has created two compelling characters whom she guides with impressive authenticity. There’s a genuineness to their frustrations and their vulnerability that resonates. Martin orchestrates the flow and ebb of their closeness and distance with real skill, shaping a narrative that’s unflinching and bold, but also light and touching. Humour is a thread woven throughout. The jokes are clever and consistently land well.
Taylor and Schmidt have great chemistry. Both wholly own their roles, playing two very different women. There is accomplished subtlety in Taylor’s facial expressions. Schmidt bounces between hot and cold with ease. They command the intimate room, giving the audience no opportunity to let their attention drift.
Juniper and Jules’ attempt to navigate the pitfalls of a non-exclusive relationship is engrossing. However, an ending that is meant to be revelatory feels circular instead. With a bit too much sermonising, the characters rehash the same ideas, and make the same decisions they made before, simply hoping this time will be different. It’s somewhat anticlimactic, as it seems a lot of the problems of the story have been left unaddressed. But overall it’s an honest, engaging, and insightful portrayal of a young couple trying to make their own rules rather than submitting to prescribed standards.
The Pit room at The Vaults is a tight space. Benches for the audience take up most of the area, leaving just an impossibly small, narrow strip of floor within which the entire performance is contained. It’s remarkable how well director Bethany Pitts has made use of almost nothing. Despite the nearly complete lack of set, we are easily immersed in the characters’ world. Also noteworthy is the approach to Juniper and Jules’ texting – a common obstacle in modern plays. Taylor and Schmidt speak the texts, including punctuation, at a distance from each other. It’s effective and keeps the characters engaged (rather staring at phones while we see messages displayed on a screen).
There’s an exciting twenty-five percent of work from LGBTQ+ artists at VAULT Festival this year. If you’re interested in authentic queer narratives told truthfully, with frankness and humour, then Juniper & Jules should be on your list.
“a play that is unique and important yet totally unpretentious”
Performed by a cast of seven, some of whom identify as having learning disabilities, Joy is a tale of the struggle for independence and the difficulty of letting go. It is about family and friendship and allowing people to just be who they are. Stephanie Martin’s script is beautifully crafted, unsentimental and real and there are some genuinely hilarious moments, one of which involves a banana. There is no tokenism here, no sense of inequality among the cast. Each and every one of the actors delivers, weaving a story that centres on one young woman’s desire to have the life she wants.
Imogen Roberts is a delight as Joy and it is a rare thing to see a person with learning disabilities presented as a fully rounded character who falls in love, is loved in return, makes friendships independently, gets drunk with her sister and stands up for what she wants. Her sister, Mary, is played by Rachel Bright, best known for playing Poppy Meadow in Eastenders. Mary loves spending time with Joy and wants her to be able to grow up and build a life for herself. But even while hanging out in the bedroom talking about boys, dancing like crazy and slugging beer, she is the responsible sister who has cared for Joy since their mother left them years ago. The two are a fantastically fun and well matched pair and the affection between them is palpable.
Danny Scheinmann plays John, the girls’ father. He is terrified of anything happening to Joy. He wants her to be safe and doesn’t like her having a relationship with Paul, played by Deen Hallisey. He also disapproves of Joy’s new friendship with Sue, played by Kate Lynn Evans, a librarian who is trapped in a cold marriage. We see Joy listening to Sue’s problems, helping the much older woman and generally enjoying her company. It is an unlikely friendship, but it works. Paul is a spoken word artist, a gentle young man, but will Joy’s father allow the relationship to continue? Scheinmann, Evans and Hallisey represent different poles in Joy’s life, Scheinmann’s frightened anger, Evan’s wonderful neuroticism and Hallisey’s quiet passion are the background to her optimism and determination and allow her to demonstrate different types of love and caring. It’s all beautifully done.
Running parallel to this contemporary tale is the story of two young sisters from the Victorian age. Joy is reading about a young woman from 1871, and sees her in her daydreams. Mabel is like Joy and her sister Maud is the equivalent of Mary, a young woman who loves her sister deeply and wants the best for her. They walk for days to get to an enlightened hospital where ‘people like Mabel’ are cared for with kindness. Maud’s care for her sister and her determination are sensitively portrayed by E J Martin and Mabel’s strength of character, occasional stubbornness and love for her sister are brought vividly to life by Stephanie Newman. After the show I found myself wondering what the rehearsal process had been like for the two pairs of sisters. The onstage relationships were strong and nuanced, there was a sense of real delight in each other’s company and genuine mutuality.
Carla Goodman’s production design is simple and effective. Chalk drawings on the back wall are completed by the cast to indicate changes of location, something I had not seen before and which works beautifully. Melanie Fullbrook directs with sensitivity and a lovely comic touch, weaving the story in a way that never jars and where both time periods co-exist with ease.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but there were tears in the audience at the end. Happy tears. If you want to see a play that is unique and important yet totally unpretentious, a play that will move you and make you laugh out loud, go and see this.
Reviewed by Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Mathew Foster
is at Gerry’s Studio, Theatre Royal Stratford East until 4th November