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
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
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.
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.
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