Melissa Blease reviews The Realistic Joneses on at Ustinov Studio until 7 March
When we first encounter Bob and Jennifer, they’re sitting in the neat little back yard of their neat little house somewhere in neat little semi-rural America, taking in the night air and bickering in that mundane, comfortable way that couples who have been together for a very long time do so well. We meet John and Pony at the same time as Bob and Jennifer do, when the younger couple – new to the ‘hood – drop by to say “hi!” in that slightly awkward way that new neighbours can do so badly.
We learn that Bob works in transport and Jennifer is a book-keeper, and that John is seeking part-time work while Pony runs her own online greeting card business. Nothing to see here; let’s move on. Even when it transpires that both couples share the same surname – ho hum, so what? There are around 11.5m Joneses in America alone; the odds that two couples living in one neighbourhood share the name could hardly be staked as high.
So far, so very sitcom set-up – until the actual coincidental connection between the two couples is slowly, painfully, hyper-realistically revealed. Both Bob and John are living with the same rare degenerative neurological disease, which of course means that Jennifer and Pony are living with it too. But do the two couples discuss this fluky chunk of happenstance to any degree of depth? The answer to that question depends entirely on which particular lines of writer Will Eno’s vigorously efficient script you choose to read between.
Academics have likened Eno’s writing to masters of the art of realism such as Beckett, Chekhov, Ibsen, Pinter and Strindberg. But listen carefully, and you can hear writers such as Anne Tyler, Carol Shields and Nick Hornby whispering their influence from the sidelines as this eloquent analysis of what it is to be human unfolds.
Hope, love, fear, pain, humour, desperation, yearning, disappointment, optimism, anger: the emotions that are so firmly woven into the texture of life’s rich tapestry are all present and, occasionally, incorrectly intertwined here, stitched together by the complex nuances that dictate ‘normal’ social interaction, and hemmed in by non-sequiturs. Each of the four Joneses rarely stop talking, often without really saying much at all, starting/stopping, stopping/starting, interrupting each other and breaking off, pausing and advancing just like we all do, all the time… but rarely on stage this well, and to this level of subtle potency.
As Jennifer, Sharon Small is perhaps the most relatable of the quartet: exasperated and worn down by circumstance, but stoic, and dependable, and philosophical in a down-to-earth way. As Jennifer’s brusque, direct, droll, smart but ultimately defeated husband Bob, Corey Johnson offers a masterclass in simultaneously conveying emotional contrast, texture and momentum. Pony (Clare Foster) attempts to hide her vulnerability behind an annoyingly enthusiastic, bright’n’breezy cloak of vapid confidence that fails to convince us that she’s confident of anything at all; she looks to her husband John to hold everything together for both of them, allowing his endless wise cracks, horseplay and banter to keep the tragic realities of the inevitable progression of his disease at bay – and Jack Laskey brings an umami combination of sweet/sour, sugar/vinegar, sucrose/citric to a role that, in the hands of a less intuitive actor, could have been played as the dramatic equivalent of adding a bag of Haribo to an overly rich casserole in an attempt to lighten the savoury overload.
Getting by but barely coping, connected yet disparate, searching for meaning and miracles in places where neither are hidden – The Realistic Joneses are very sad, and very funny… and very, very relatable; few of us can claim to have not been, at least more than one point in our lives, a Jones.
Main image: Jack Laskey (John), Clare Foster (Pony) and Sharon Small (Jennifer) © Simon Annand