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Review: Ramona Tells Jim (Bush Theatre)

Sophie Wu's oddball comedy discusses whether our first loves ever really leave us

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Ramona Tells Jim at the Bush Theatre
© Samuel Taylor

You never get over your first love, apparently. No matter how fleeting a fling it was, no matter who, when or how, you carry that experience with you for life – novelty making it more intense than any other. You feel that first flutter unlike any thereafter and, at some level it scars you. Your first love stays with you forever. You never entirely move on.

So it is for Ramona Tells Jim, the strange teenage sweethearts in actor-playwright Sophie Wu's second play – an odd-boy-meets-odd-girl story that skips between two meteor showers.

Ramona (Ruby Bentall) is a 16 year-old with a silver birch allergy and an over-ornate mode of speech. Jim (Joe Bannister) is 17 and collects crustaceans. They're both big fans of Enya's music. She's on a geography field trip from "Englandshire", studying the changes in the Scottish landscape, and he's scooping up hermit crabs when they first meet. Over two days of tender, off-beat conversation, they fumble their way into one another's lives – two lonely hearted loners falling in love. It's 1998 – the year Scotland won devolution.

Wu's subject, really, is stasis. Fifteen years later, both are still stuck on one another; stuck being the operative word. Jim never really moved on – but neither did his world. At 32, he's still in "the shittest town in Scotland" (Mallaig on the west coast), and still, more problematically, in a relationship with a teenager, the improbably named Pocahontas (Amy Lennox). His flat carries "a whiff of death" and his crustaceans float in formaldehyde – "suspended in time", as he puts it. (Pocahontas is less sympathetic: "Dead shit in jars.") When Ramona returns, out of the blue, she seems to be holding a torch for him too – only rather than being held back by her heart, Ramona's never gotten over her guilt.

Winding the clock back and forwards, Wu lets both past and present unfold, so that a fleeting teenage rom-com tees up a 'will-they-won't-they' reunion. That, in turn, hints that their past holds some long-buried secrets. If the structure's a bit wayward, it conveys their stunted history well and Wu keys into the personal emotions, while hinting at a wider political point – that Scotland has, in its new freedom, been left behind.

For all that, Wu's writing can be mighty irritating, forever elevating cutesiness over credibility. Rather than real, rational people, her characters are bundles of oddball traits and off-beat behaviour, and Wu never misses an opportunity for a kooky display. There are frantic pre-kiss polo mints and pre-shag haiku. At one point, Jim dishes up a fish lasagne – the sort of dish found only in cack-handed rom-coms.

It scuppers the story as a whole – so effortful. The details don't add up, nor does the sense of place. It's about as Hebridean as the Holloway Road. Throughout, Wu lets her theme dictate the action, so that couples shag to Coldplay's "Clocks" and old-flames vomit into longstanding pot plants. It's too much.

It lends the play a naff sitcom feel. Mel Hillyard's production has fun with that – Bentall and Bannister share a beautiful bad dance to "Orinoco Flow" – but to be at all effective, Ramona Tells Jim needs grounding in reality.

Ramona Tells Jim runs at the Bush Theatre until 21 October.

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