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 The Theatreguide.London Review

A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg
Trafalgar Studios   Autumn 2019

A new production of Peter Nichols' 1967 comedy-drama reminds us of how very startling it was five decades ago.

With abrupt switches between deep pathos and broad comedy, crude jokes about a disabled child, and repeated breaking of the fictional illusion to allow characters to address the audience directly, it kept those in that audience mentally and emotionally off-balance throughout.

It is not the play's fault that much of what was original and genre-busting about it is no longer quite so surprising, so that Joe Egg now plays like a high-quality version of what you might see on a TV soap.

Bri and Sheila, the married couple in the play, have a teenage daughter so deeply disabled that she is what they remember one Viennese doctor calling a 'wegetable', though one prone to violent and presumably painful epileptic-type fits.

The parents are, obviously, deeply anguished by their daughter's condition. But Nichols shows us, and makes both believable and acceptable, that one way in which they cope is to make jokes, laughing to keep from crying.

When not mocking daughter Jo by asking about her imagined variety of activities, they play out what are clearly many-times-rehearsed comic skits of her painful birth and the repeated visits to unhelpful doctors.

It is a tribute to playwright Nichols and to, in this production, actors Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner and director Simon Evans, that these episodes, flirting so closely as they are with bad taste, are successfully both funny and sad.

Although Toby Stephens' physical presence might be a little too strong and manly to be fully believable as a man frantically fighting total collapse, Stephens does show us the desperation behind the joking and the exhaustion behind the despair.

Claire Skinner's character joins in the joking but reserves a mother's desperate grain of hope, and the actor allows us to see the woman's constant inner struggle between realism and fading faith.

Nowhere is this clearer than in an address to the audience that Skinner makes the emotional power moment of the play, as she describes what she remembers as tiny hints of awareness and intelligence in Jo, leaving us to decide how much of what she reports is wilful self-delusion.

The other members of the cast are not so strongly written or well directed. Clarence Smith as an intrusively helpful friend and Lucy Eaton as his counterbalancingly not-wanting-to-get-involved wife are directed to overplay to the point of becoming cartoon caricatures, while Patricia Hodge gets away with generic Old Lady as Bri's judgmental mother. Storme Toolis, an actress with cerebral palsy, plays Jo, bringing a special kind of authenticity to the characterisation.

Joe Egg is a play of strong moments, both comic and serious. And if those moments aren't quite as startlingly strong as they were in 1967, they're still there, and well-performed where it counts.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg -  Trafalgar Studios  2019

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