A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Peter Nichols

Rose Theatre Kingston and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse

Rose Theatre Kingston

From 01 May 2013 to 18 May 2013

Review by Melissa Poll

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We’re all damaged goods and God is a manic-depressive, rugby footballer. This is the world according to Peter Nichols’s black comedy, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, now playing in an outstanding revival directed by Stephen Unwin at The Rose Theatre.

Nichols’s narrative follows a day in the life of schoolteacher Bri, his wife Sheila and their severely disabled daughter Joe. From the outset, the play’s eclectic style is front and centre with characters regularly breaking the fourth wall in no holds barred monologues or to engage in rapid-fire banter reminiscent of vaudeville comedy routines. Through these humorous break-outs, we soon learn that for Bri and, to some extent, Sheila, comedy is a coping mechanism used to diffuse their conflicting feelings about Joe.

Act 2 sees a further juxtaposing of comedy and drama with the arrival of Freddie, Sheila’s bellowing co-star in a local amateur production, and his wife Pam, a moneyed mummy with a strong distaste for anything ‘NPA’—Not Physically Attractive.

A contemporary of John Osborne and Harold Pinter, Nichols’s work has seen increased interest of late, with Simon Russell Beale and co receiving top notices for Privates on Parade and a production of Passion Play featuring Zoë Wanamaker and Owen Teale about to open at the Duke of York. 

It bears note, however, that Joe Egg's darkly comic tone can seem old hat. While audiences and critics in 1967 were taken with Nichols's refreshingly irreverent and original examination of parenting a disabled child, for contemporary audiences, the sarcasm and skit-making may sometimes wear thin.

This being said, Stephen Unwin deserves high praise for his energised production, which expertly mines Nichols’s comedy while providing a resonant reading of the heartbreak at the core of Joe Egg.

Thanks to designers Simon Higlett (set) and Paul Anderson (lighting), Nichols’s absurd world pops brightly into focus with Bri and Sheila’s apartment recalling the world of Lewis Carroll. The aforementioned reach of a bipolar God also features prominently.

Under Unwin’s direction, performances here are stellar. From the moment Ralf Little (Bri) enters the auditorium, chiding his classroom of students, his comic chops are evident. The challenge in this role, however, resides not only in mining laughs but also in finding the right balance of sarcasm and bald pathos to conjure a man who is deeply dissatisfied with his lot. In Little’s capable hands, Bri’s struggle is palpable.

As Bri's wife Sheila, Rebecca Johnson is equally strong. She embodies Sheila’s enthusiasm for life in all its forms, resulting in a homestead that is more wild menagerie of house pets than personal living space. Johnson effortlessly channels a woman caught between the needs of her daughter and husband, ultimately bound to lose one through her loyalty to the other.

Supporting players are also impressive. Owen Oakeshott nails the wealthy, self-dubbed ‘socialist’, Freddie, and Sally Tatum is delicious as his kept wife Pamela, a woman who thinks nothing of wearing gold lamé pumps and her fur to a community theatre rehearsal. As Joe, Jessica Bastick-Vines credibly embodies the character’s severe physical challenges.

While A Day in the Death of Joe Egg may be showing signs of age, Stephen Unwin's smart and searing staging trumps this issue, making The Rose's production well worth the trip to Kingston.