Trafalgar Studios, London – until 30 November 2019
Peter Nichols’ 1967 comedy A Day In The Death of Joe Egg demonstrates both how far we’ve come in our treatment of and attitudes towards disability but equally how the moral dilemmas and struggles remain.
Fifteen-year-old Joe (Storme Toolis) has cerebral palsy, is wheelchair-bound and can’t communicate. To cope, her parents Bri (Toby Stephens) and Sheila (Claire Skinner) use humour, creating a persona for Joe but it is putting a strain on their marriage.
Bri and Sheila (and later other characters) break the fourth wall telling the audience their thoughts on each other and their life, revealing not only the history of their relationship and raising Joe but also their inner struggles.
We learn that Joe arrived when they were newly married, it was a long, difficult labour and Sheila has been unable to conceive since. Sheila blames herself for Joe’s disability and Bri hates the resentment he feels for how Joe has changed their lives.
A devoted carer, Sheila supplements her need to nurture by filling the house with pets from goldfish to flea-infested cats. Bri meanwhile is an unhappy school teacher, spends his evening painting cowboys and suspects Sheila is having an affair with Freddie (Clarence Smith) who is in her amateur dramatics group. Or perhaps he wants her to have an affair, something to shift the stifling fug of their domestic routine.
Freddie for his part ‘just wants to help’ while his wife Pam (Lucy Eaton) is horrified by even the idea of a disabled child. Skinner and Stephens’ performances are layered, Sheila and Bri’s guilt exposed in their coping mechanisms. They both wear an unhealthy mask of denial and, in Bri’s case his behaviour is painfully dismissive and petulant which leads him in a potentially tragic direction.
Attitudes towards disability have come along way since the 1960s as the audible gasps from the audience testify – Pam tells us she hates anything ‘ugly’.
With modern medicine, technology and therapies it is easier to provide a better quality of life for those with disabilities but that doesn’t necessarily negate the dilemma society faces in qualifying quality of life.
Discrimination and the unfair treatment of those with disabilities while improving is still a problem.
In a contemporary context it feels hard to laugh at some of the humour in A Day In The Death of Joe Egg – although it does have its funny moments – and the lack of concern and care displayed by medical staff is horrifying.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg – (L-R) Claire Skinner Toby Stephens Storme Toolis. Photographer – Marc Brenner
Stunning performances from Skinner and Stephens and it is a testament to Storme Toolis’ performance that Joe feels ever-present, even when she’s not on stage.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a bittersweet comedy that has humour and horror. It swells your heart and breaks it, it makes you angry at the characters and for them.
It is two and a half hours long including an interval and runs at the Trafalgar Studio until November 30. I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
You might also like to read:
Review: Caryl Churchill’s Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp at the Royal Court – superb writing but some pieces feel like over-extended sketches.
Interview: Theatre photographer Simon Annand on what he’s learned about actors and being start struck.
From the archives: Remembering when I got to see Alan Rickman on stage (it involved a trip to Dublin).
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