Writer: Peter Nichols
Director: Simon Evans
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
In times of crisis Brits are famous for a sense of humour and endless stoicism but while that “Blitz Spirit” may apply to times of war and national crisis, Peter Nichols semi-biographical 1967 play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, enjoying a rare outing at the Trafalgar Studios, suggests the small domestic tragedies of daily life can be much harder to bear especially when emotional strain eventually outweighs intellectual reason.
Bri and Sheila have spent 15 years caring for disabled daughter Joe and have developed a number of humorous games as part of their coping strategy. On one particularly day, sick of his job at the local school and half-convinced his wife is having an affair with a local entrepreneur at the drama club, Bri cries out for attention, breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience their story. Admirable or long-suffering, things come to a head over a late-night coffee with friends.
In our far more hysterical modern times, this tale of a marriage put under strain by caring for a disabled child has lost none of its ability to shock and several audible gasps reverberate around the audience as controversial solutions to caring for Joe are proposed by the characters. With his own experience to hand, Nichols grounds his play in the day-to-day realities of being a full-time carer and its emotional consequences for a family torn between accepting the medical reality and hoping for a miracle.
Simon Evans’ new production is both thoughtful and entertaining, elaborating the play’s key issues while retaining a sympathetic perspective on all of the characters. With a raised living room set on stilts designed by Peter McKintosh this unusual play in which the protagonists stop the action to address the audience and re-enact scenes from the past that led to Joe’s diagnosis, are well managed using a movable structure that allows the actors to sit on the edge of the stage and push it back to perform on the ground in front.
The pragmatic Bri is the focus, charting the accelerated collapse of his resolve and revealing the limits to his ability to endlessly endure with little external support. Toby Stephens is a stage actor of considerable skill and here delivers a superb performance that captures Bri’s defensiveness, using silly voices and dry humour to distract from the hopelessness he feels, as well as suggesting a crushing sadness lingering beneath the surface born partly of anger because he loves his daughter and hates himself for doubting it, but mostly from the loss of possibility that life once held for him.
Stephens’ comic abilities are too rarely seen, and here he switches rapidly between characters including a pompous doctor and slimy vicar as part of the re-enactments, while delivering each perfectly timed put-down and withering glance with aplomb. In Act Two, Stephens introduces a twitchiness to the performance which builds credibly to the play’s dramatic conclusion as a man who cannot take any more. Every time Stephens speaks, the audience is enthralled, without so much as a rustle in the room.
Claire Skinner so often plays these maternal roles that Sheila is less of a departure for her, but she does these calm and collected figures so well. Sheila copes better than Bri because she accepts the now while hoping for a future miracle to help Joe which Skinner conveys convincingly, however the frequent promiscuity of the character in her pre-marital years hardly accords with the neat figure Skinner presents, a confined wildness lacking from the interpretation.
Storme Toolis is very good as Joe, suggesting the physical and communicative impairments that divide the characters, and while often talked around or about, the character remains a strong presence throughout. Lucy Eaton is also excellent as friend Pam who voices views about physical beauty that offer an honest but controversial perspective, while Patricia Hodge is equally entertaining as Bri’s interfering mother who adds some comic pep to the darker second half.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is not an easy play to watch and its construction mixes straight dramatic scenes with monologued asides and flashbacks that create an odd atmosphere of disorientation. With a standout performance from the excellent Toby Stephens, Nichols’ play still asks big questions about the psychological effect of being a carer that gain considerable momentum in Evans’ well-managed production, suggesting that humour and stoicism can only go so far.
Runs Until: 30 November 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner