The Theatreguide.London Review
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
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 fault
that 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 epileptic-type fits.
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
Claire Skinner's 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
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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