FringeReview UK 2019
Simon Evans directs this revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at Trafalgar Studios 1, with Peter McIntosh’s occasionally revolving set and costumes (supervisor Binnie Bowerman), lit by Prema Mehta, with Edward Lewis sound design and composition, Assistant Director David Frias-Robles. Hair wigs and make up are by Carole Hancock. Sarita Piotrowski’s Movement Director, Tim Birkett Dialect Coach
Peter Nichols studded three succeeding decades with one defining play – The National Health, Passion Play, Privates on Parade. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg from 1967 is still though his definitive work.
It not only changed perceptions about disability based on his own family experience, but broke taboos around honest reactions to it in charcoal-black humour. And introduced a post-Brechtian free-wheeling theatricality, proving hugely influential.
Simon Evans’ revival at Trafalgar Studios 1 is a swirling affair, with Peter McIntosh’s occasionally revolving set – a dishevelled lounge with op-art paintings and sixties costumes from tweed-and-leather-elbows to slinky mini-skirts. It’s lit by Prema Mehta with a hint of wintry twilight outside. The Christmas tree’s up. Edward Lewis’ sound design and composition pumps pop and outraged cat meows.
Toby Stephens’ thirty-nothing Bri is ordering us – hic class – about, strutting down below the set, close to the front row. The audience soon have hands on heads. Bri’s monologues open and close the play – and actually refer to a theatre audience of strangers for Sheila’s benefit. They aren’t the only ones though. Nichols generously allows each character a turn, which is as well since Clarence Smith’s Freddie, Lucy Eaton’s Pam and Patricia Hodge’s Grace only arrive in Act Two.
And there’s a special tender shock in Storme Toolis’ Joe. Toolis speaks eloquently in the programme about disabled actors reclaiming parts they should have taken long ago; her understudy too is disabled actor/writer Athena Stevens. About time. Toolis finds that hint of articulacy in Joe, making possible baby-steps of progress and Grand Mal setbacks all the more harrowing. Indeed they suffuse part of the final scene.
Joe Egg is the name Bri and Claire Skinner’s Sheila give their severely disabled child of fifteen, coping mechanisms twisted on parodies of role-playing Mum and Dad in front of Joe. It’s a regular cabaret, skirling humour skimming round the edges of living and partly living. Bri in particular – very intelligent but immature, painting better than he teaches (though why not as an art teacher?) – has had enough. Running jokes wear thin. Sheila, with her sexy past (‘not four Americans. Two Americans and one Canadian’) is currently too exhausted, and Bri’s advances pall. Skinner mixes an exasperated Connie from Fawlty towers with someone altogether warmer and more vulnerable.
He’s introduced her to old school chum wealthy industrialist Freddie so she can play with the local am-drams, Bri likes to pretend Freddie’s having an affair with Sheila. Humourless wannabe-socialist Freddie takes this literally and as tensions rise in the painfully funny second act, disavows it in front of his wife. He’ll never get Bri; nor (obviously) Sheila.
Disastrously, Freddie and Pam are brought back ostensibly as thanks to Sheila for nursing her through am-dram; in reality Bri and Sheila feel they should be confronted with a touch of truth. Then Bri’s fussing mother Grace just happens to be passing.
Throughout, Stephens’ hangdog braggadocio, part soggy Mr Chips part Jimmy Porter and a dash of Norman Conquests ranges role-play as coping, hoping to rekindle Skinner’s Sheila with black humour – or re-running scenes from their past like the patronising busy GP or brutal Viennese specialist, the first to suggest Joe will be a vegetable, or parsnip, in Bri’s words. Sheila too with her visit to Bri’s avuncular priest discusses her vibrant sexuality and Grace’s offensive suggestion it caused Joe’s affliction.
Skinner’s straight-bat Sheila allows the humour but proves devastating in riposte to Freddie as she and Bri decide it’s time he and the appallingly prissy Pam meet Joe. Only the audience learns the degree to which Pam in her monologue can’t stand anyone ‘not NPA – Non-physically attractive. Old women in bathing suits- and ski diseases – and cripples…’ She feels clearly if exactly not gas chambers something ought to be done. She has no idea how her wishes might manifest. Eaton relishes her svelte ungrateful part.
Smith’s pronouncements are so guyed you’d think them a parody, but such people existed and Smith’s deadpan smugness is one of those parts where pushing smugness this side parody for a reaction is half the fun.
What Nichols manages is to put three people on trial – Hodge points up Grace’s miraculous mix of condemning Sheila for promiscuity as a reason for her child’s disability, and sudden affection for Joe when in peril, is carried on in a continual subversive war against Sheila: trying to reclaim Bri, infantilise him, offering a hot water bottle should he ever decide to return. Hodge never parodies Grace; her bundle of prejudices are enough. Nichols explains it all amidst the disintegrating Bri.
Two shocking denouements explode out of the increasingly furious evening, both initiated by Bri. One’s heart-stopping, the last’s a genuine shock, since everything’s prepared for something different. This production is as good as we’re likely to see for a long time. Over 50 years on, this still sets benchmarks. Its power to enthrall, to appall can never date.