Jess and Joe Forever, Joe White's Mayfly is the second impressive playwrighting debut of the week (and the second one touching on grief, as it happens.) Cat's (Niky Wardley) horoscope says today is the day a special person will appear out of the blue, and the play's conceit is that it's right: Within a couple of hours Harry (Irfan Shamji) has met all three members of her family, starting when he pulls her husband Ben (Simon Scardifield) out of a river. Ben was trying to down himself because today marks the one-year anniversary of the death of his son.
Harry works at the local pub, but not for much longer; hearing that it's closing after being sold to a property developer, Cat visits her old haunt on its last day, chatting and awkwardly trying to flirt with him while he tries to clear glasses away.
Their daughter Loops (Evelyn Hoskins) on the other hand is actively seeking Harry out, having met him ten years earlier when they were teenagers at summer camp. Bullied into touching her chest for the other kids' amusement, he's blanked out the memory along with everything else about that summer, but she's convinced herself he's the person to get her out of her mourning, has determined they'll go out on her first-ever date, and written "Nipple Soulmates" on her arm.
When their date picking magic mushrooms ends in her being sick, Loops takes Harry home for dinner, where he's confronted by all the people he's had awkward encounters with all day, who've now started to imagine a greater purpose for him in their lives. As with the insect he's named his play after, with its day-long live cycle, White's theme is that a lot can happen in a day, perhaps a life-changing amount, and he never quite manages to disguise the way the plot needs a fair bit of contrivance to make all that happen; watching the play involved, for me, a certain amount of trying to guess what pieces White was trying to fit together, which might be why I never got the emotional kick I might have expected.
In other regards though White is a natural, particularly at being able to perfectly balance out the underlying sadness with sharp humour, like Ben's attempt to make the moments after his aborted suicide less awkward with football chat. There's also a nice correlation between the loss the family are grieving, and the loss of a way of life in the countryside, that isn't overplayed. Guy Jones' production is a winning one with a real find in Shamji, whose awkward charm makes it understandable that the family would pin their hopes of healing their wounds on him. Cécile Trémolières' design, Christopher Nairne's lighting and Jon Ouin's sound design also combine at times to lend a sad, dreamlike tinge that suggests the depths that the play clearly has, even if it doesn't always quite explore them.
Mayfly by Joe White is booking until the 26th of May at the Orange Tree Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Helen Murray.