Review: The Realistic Joneses (Ustinov Studio)

Will Eno’s play about two neighbouring Jones families has its UK premiere

Jack Laskey, Clare Foster, Sharon Small and Corey Johnson in The Realistic Joneses
Jack Laskey, Clare Foster, Sharon Small and Corey Johnson in The Realistic Joneses
© Simon Annand

Playwright Will Eno's relationship with language is one of the most refreshing and energising things you can witness on stage today. Eno is like a word imp, always waiting at the sidelines to disarm you. He doesn't just play with a script, he turns it upside down and pulls it inside out, unravelling sentences so that a seemingly pedestrian, mundane word suddenly becomes funny – ridiculous even – and filled with new meaning.

It's something you'll spot a lot in the 55-year-old Brooklyn-based writer's work – and you can see it here, in the UK premiere of The Realistic Joneses, bold as brass. It makes the story of two couples – both called Jones, living next door to one another in a little village at the bottom of a mountain – illuminating, hilarious and epic.

Eno sees the humour in his phrases, taking platitudes and clichés and mercilessly exposing them. He has a lot of fun with the lazy way people use the word 'literally' and the truth of the social niceties we all parrot: "Well this was fun… well not fun," says the squeamish Pony rapidly exiting her new neighbours' backyard after a dead squirrel is discovered in the flower beds.

The Realistic Joneses is very funny, therefore, but it is also very sad. Sad because a strange congenital disease that Bob has is slowly killing him, messing with the part of his brain that deals with language along the way. He and his wife Jennifer are not communicating much, but when Pony and John turn up to rent the house next door, their odd references, their ways of seeing the world, their anxiety and strange energy all have a transforming effect.

It's a quiet, subtle play, with few revelations or significant narrative events. The two couples are mostly just living and talking. But it's the way they talk that gives you a deeply affecting insight into the pain, joy and love human beings are capable of in times of change and trauma.

Director Simon Evans knows the dialogue here is the star and has made sure his very strong cast focus on that. The performances he has coaxed from them are excellent, the characters unique and believable. Clare Foster's Pony has just the right level of intense kookiness. Initially we think she's away with the fairies, but ultimately we begin to hear everything she doesn't say. Corey Johnson as the quiet Bob is a revelation – with a sturdiness rattled by what is happening in his brain and in maintaining his physical and emotional distance, he also manages to portray how much he needs other people. Sharon Small and Jack Laskey are also very watchable, their developing relationship intense and real.

It all takes place on Peter McKintosh's suburban green backyard set that feels at times very alien and at others very familiar. That atmosphere absolutely works for this piece, which offers an often otherworldly, at times oblique, but always deeply felt snapshot of everything that makes us human.