Playwright Peter Nichols died only last month at the age of 92. The Trafalgar Studios’ production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a fitting tribute to him, his lifetime’s commitment to drama, for which he was appointed CBE last year, and the semi-autobiographical play, which hit the theatrical headlines when it premiered in 1967.
Faithful, bold and darkly comic
"If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry," is a common sentiment, but it poignantly underlies the straightforward storyline of this structurally simple work; it is the subject matter and it’s treatment that makes the play stand out. West-country Sheila (Claire Skinner) and Bri (Toby Stephens) have a demanding and faltering relationship that’s dominated by caring for their ten-year-old daughter, Josephine (Storme Toolis) who has multiple physical conditions. Requiring twenty-four hour care, she is unable to speak, has frequent fits and seizures and when not lifted from place to place is confined to a wheelchair.
In the opening scene Stephens amusingly addresses the audience in a series of failed attempts to instil some order into a school detention. As his mind wanders lustily to thoughts of his wife, the revolve turns from showing the outside of his house to reveal Peter McKintosh’s perfectly recreated 60s living room. It is then that the survival strategy of dark humour comes in to play. Stephens plays these for all they are worth creating an amusing camouflage for what is eating Bri away. Underneath he is a far harder man that he would dare let on but knows that his wife feels very differently. Skinner shows how Sheila, a woman of hope rather than despair, plays along with his antics for the most part, recognising them for what they are, but at times they become too much even for her. She also captures the guilt she feels for her promiscuous earlier life and the sense of responsibility that haunts her.
With casting gaffes and criticisms commonly occurring in the theatre this production is to be congratulated for getting it right and placing Toolis, who has cerebral palsy as Joe. As she points out, “I can’t relate to Joe completely because our impairments are different, but I can relate to Joe more than an able-bodied person.” Progress has been made since the Lord Chamberlain suggested the child ought not to appear on stage for fear of give offence, and Toolis’ moving portrayal highlights the nonsense of that idea. Act two sees further sound judgements revealed. Clarence Smith is exuberant as the champagne socialist Freddie, ineptly abounding with good intentions and covering for the manifest embarrassment of his wife, Pam. Lucy Eaton, fabulously dressed as a reminder of the horrors of the age, exudes all the discomfort of a woman who mixes only with PLU’s and would concur with the Lord Chamberlain of the day. The final entrance goes to the much-anticipated arrival of Bri’s mother, Grace. Always a joy, Patricia Hodge, is comfortably ascerbic, judgemental and interfering with some cutting humour.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a dramatic one-off that bluntly tackles a delicate subject with great humour. Although radical in its day, and now perhaps somehwhat non-PC, it is very much of its time. For those of us who saw it in the late sixties it’s a delightful reminiscence. For newcomers Simon Evans has directed a faithful, bold and darkly comic recreation of a piece of theatre history.