A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
52 years after its swift advance from Glasgow via the West End to Broadway, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg still feels revelatory.
On the surface, Peter Nichols’s autobiographical play has most of the ingredients of a light comedy, fronted by Toby Stephens as Bri, who could easily be a warm-up man, such is the quality of his breathless patter.
Having browbeaten the audience into accepting their roles as teenaged school pupils under his bombastic tutelage, Bristolian Bri returns to his archetypally middle-class front room, presented by designer Peter McKintosh on a wheeled scaffolding structure.
There, he exchanges pleasant banter with Claire Skinner playing his long-suffering wife Sheila, who loves and humours him but also clearly feels great frustration on an ongoing basis.
What might in other circumstances be described as the “elephant in the room” is their 15-year-old daughter Joe, played by Storme Toolis.
Although the reasons have never been definitively established, she has been physically and mentally handicapped since birth and, after one of the wheelchair-bound girl’s many epileptic fits, unable to control her limbs or communicate coherently, quite possibly not understanding what is going on around her.
The most likely explanation is that doctors' increasingly desperate attempts to end a five-day period of labour, which was threatening Sheila’s life, got something badly wrong. However, the guilt-ridden mother believes that the cause is some kind of divine retribution for her promiscuity prior to marriage.
Whatever the reason, the consequences are draining for all concerned. Looking after Joe is a 24/7 occupation, although Sheila has been persuaded to take up amateur dramatics as a therapy.
The first half of an evening that stretches to 2½ hours presents a detailed portrait of the couple, along with their trials and tribulations.
After the interval, their lives are brought into wider perspective by the introduction first of their married friends Freddie and Pam. Clarence Smith plays an innately generous man desperate to do the right thing if you possibly can, while Lucy Eaton delivers a wickedly accurate portrayal of a woman whose natural instinct when offered the opportunity to meet the crippled girl is to run for the hills.
Before they can escape, Patricia Hodge, complete with a rather dodgy accent, arrives as Bri’s cloying mother Grace. While she is undoubtedly overbearing, Grace also cares a great deal, although she has a hilariously unerring knack of stirring up trouble by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner spend much of the time speaking directly to the audience and both excel, whether making us laugh or cry.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg works on a number of different levels. Peter Nichols is not only a brilliant judge of character but able to convey this in great doubt with remarkable skill. As such, viewers will feel like they have in-depth understanding of the views and motivations of each of the adults on show.
At the same time, the playwright’s comic writing is extremely funny. He also builds up suspense impeccably while his ability to show his audience the pain felt by the central couple is second to none.
Simon Evans’s revival is not for the fainthearted but presents a welcome reminder that even in the mid-1960s when the British stage was still constrained by the censor’s whim, playwrights could write timeless dramas that still speak volumes all these years later.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher