A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
Library Theatre, Manchester
The Library has followed its successful production of Much Ado about Nothing with a revival of Peter Nichols' semi-autobiographical play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. It was considered shocking when first performed in 1967 and was one of the last plays to fall foul of the Lord Chamberlain. It launched a successful run for Nichols which included the comedies The National Health and Privates on Parade.
It is, as the author himself has noted, a "problem play". It attempts to deal in a tragi-comic way with the difficulties faced by the parents (Bri and Sheila) of a young girl called Joe who has cerebral palsy. It seeks to do this in a way that will "prevent a sudden stampede to the exit doors."
Though still a very powerful piece of theatre, one of its problems lies in the balancing of the early comedy with the later tragedy. About three quarters of the way through, the mood darkens considerably as it is clear that Bri is at the end of his tether. The strain that lies beneath his wise-cracking persona becomes too much. By the end of the evening it is clear that he has reached a major decision and there is no going back.
Jason Thorpe and Judy Flynn as Bri and Sheila give fine performances. Thorpe in particular is a gifted physical comic actor. His performance provides the bedrock of the evening, although his improvisational skill did threaten at times to overshadow some other performers.
Part of the tension is over how well the young actress plays the child. Lucy Smith played Joe on the evening this reviewer attended. She handled it very well and kept up a pretty consistent level of trembling, dribbling and eye rolling. Whether the part should be played by a real child at all was part of the battle that Nichols had with the censor. Luckily for us and the play, he won through.
It is well directed by Roger Haines, the associate director of the Library Theatre. He has generally delivered a good pace and the acting is well rounded and believable. The set design by Judith Croft is effectively realized. It is quite standard lower middle class chic for the late sixties - smooth lines, light furniture and bright colours.
The introduction of three characters in the second act broke the established intimacy. However they offered solid support. They were Christopher Brand as Freddie and Race Davies as his wife Pam who can't hide her revulsion at the very sight of Joe. Special mention also for Tina Gray as Bri's rather dotty mother.
Whilst it is a difficult evening in the theatre there are a lot of laughs to be had. The humour and the direct addressing of the audience do stimulate thoughts about what it might be like to have to deal with such a painful situation. However, they do compromise the late gear shift into tragedy and work against moving the audience.
The final word goes to Ellis Palmer who is 11 and has cerebral palsy like Joe. In a programme interview he requests, "Don't look at the wheelchair. Look at me."
Reviewer: Andrew Edwards