A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Peter Nichols
New Ambassadors
(2001)

Laurence Boswell's revival of Peter Nichols' 1967 autobiographical play is particularly memorable for two fine performances from its leading actors. Clive Owen and Victoria Hamilton as a husband and wife, Brian and Sheila are exceptionally moving in their depiction of the parents of a multiplegic spastic child. They are also very very funny.

The first half of the play shows how the couple have survived the 10 years since the birth of their completely paralysed vegetable daughter, Joe. They knew almost immediately that after a five-day labour, their child was not normal.

They learn to cope with Josephine in different ways. Brian is a fatalist while Sheila is the optimist. He becomes an excessive joker who does not believe that anything that raises a laugh could be in bad taste. As Sheila says, he spends his life "coining epigrams and wallowing in self pity". She turns to religion and a blind hope that for no apparent reason, their daughter will suddenly become normal. To an extent, the play considers which of them is more sane.

The couple carry on imaginary discussions over Joe's head, each of them playing the part of their daughter in the way that they would if she were still a baby. This probably helps them more than it helps her although it is impossible to tell what, if anything the child is thinking.

Clive Owen as schoolteacher Brian is often hilarious, particularly at the start of the play when he assails the audience as if it were his class. He also does a very good job of playing the various people that the couple meet in their attempts to reconcile themselves to their plight. These include two incompetent and heartless doctors, both terrifyingly believable, and a potentially exorcising vicar who looks like John Lennon on some illegal substances.

While he is doing this, Victoria Hamilton gives a very sympathetic performance as his long-suffering wife. The moment when she sees a little flicker of intelligence in her daughter and bursts out in a proud maternal smile is devastating. This contrasts with her normal air of desperation which seems to be caused in almost equal measures by her husband and her daughter. .

After the interval, we are introduced to three more characters. Unfortunately, they are not well drawn. Prunella Scales as Brian's appalling mother seems very clichéd as do the two friends who are introduced as a means of bringing the discussion around to euthanasia. While John Wornaby as Freddie makes a reasonable job of playing a supposedly socialist toff, Robin Weaver is a very wooden wife.

The play advances to a very moving, if sad end during which the playwright combines farce and tragedy and one can only feel sympathy for the Nichols family who had to live through an experience that must have been as difficult as that of these characters.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher