Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Theatre review: Ramona Tells Jim

In a story that jumps back and forth fifteen years, Sophie Wu has put together what feels like parts of two different plays, one of which works much better than the other. Ramona Tells Jim takes place in a remote part of coastal Scotland – “the shittest village in Scotland” according to Jim (Joe Bannister.) At age 17, he’s a loner who likes collecting crustacea and dreams of becoming a marine biologist. Meeting Ramona (Ruby Bentall) will make for a memorable few days but will also be partly responsible for thwarting his ambition: An awkward 16-year-old English schoolgirl on a geography field trip, she’s his first romance, but early on in the play we get a clue that a violent event will sour the memory of their relationship. 15 years later Ramona turns up again unexpectedly, first on Facebook, then on Jim’s doorstep.

Now aged 32, Jim works in a fish factory, giving unpopular tours of the area to tourists as a hobby. He’s in a not-particularly-healthy relationship with the much-younger Pocahontas (Amy Lennox) and a trip to Frankfurt for a crustacean conference is the most exciting thing on his horizon.

Ramona meanwhile works in a London office where she’s neither popular nor happy, but her life still sounds unbelievably glamorous to the 19-year-old Pocahontas, whose ambitions stretch as far as working in a bank and marrying Jim because he's not actively horrible to her. So the story bounces between teenage characters whose lonely lives are made brighter by the belief that they’ll get better, and the sad realisation a few years later that actually they won’t. The former is by far the stronger element of the play, Mel Hillyard’s production having a lot of fun with the characters’ teenage awkwardness: Ramona disguises her nervousness behind a convolutedly pretentious, pompous way of speech and Bentall gets a lot of mileage out of playing this dead serious; while Bannister has always been good at a kind of awkward charm that makes him believable as simultaneously gormless and the object of Ramona’s fantasies.

The teenage comedy is hugely entertaining, with Wu providing a lot of very funny dialogue and the actors running with it. Even cheaper, more clichéd attempts at laughs come off as fresh in Hillyard’s production, like the inevitable bad dancing sequence, which here sees the duo headbanging to Enya. The grimmer side of the play is less convincing though, and never quite feels like part of the same story – the aggressive side we see to Jim both at 17 and 32 comes too much out of the blue.

As the title suggests, Ramona’s return is to tell Jim something, and the reveal of her secret isn’t as much of a surprise to the audience as it appears to be to him. Given it’s the moment the play’s named after, perhaps Wu wanted to look more at the idea of someone confessing as a selfish act, easing their own conscience but burdening someone else’s unnecessarily in the process. But it’s something I mulled over afterwards rather than the writing actually confronting it. It’s a shame Ramona Tells Jim fizzles out somewhat, because when it works it really works, its sitcom of clumsy teenage love making a hackneyed subject feel fresh.

Ramona Tells Jim by Sophie Wu is booking until the 21st of October at the Bush Theatre’s Studio.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton, Samuel Taylor.

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