A Day in the Death of Joe Egg - 30 September 2019 Review
An evening of black comedy that is refreshingly unsentimental, but by no means insensitiveIn the intimate setting of Trafalgar Studios, with a fourth wall so thoroughly dismantled by the script and production, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg makes for uncomfortable viewing. Compellingly so. Strong central performances and a subject matter as raw now as it was in 1967 create an evening of black comedy that is, in these times, refreshingly unsentimental, but by no means insensitive.
The tone is set immediately with a direct-to-audience rant from Bri (Toby Stephens) in his day-job as a schoolteacher. This skilfully awkward opening makes it clear that this is a tired man whose heart has left him and that we are the naughty kids that need to shut up and listen. As he retreats from the classroom, the enormous wooden box behind him rotates to reveal a realistic living room set bursting with the baubles of domestic mediocrity. Bri doesn’t walk around to step in through the front door, but instead clambers through the non-existent fourth wall and into his home-life.
Bri and Sheila are a couple whose marriage is at breaking point, largely down to the stress of looking after their disabled daughter Josephine, who they refer to (somewhat) lovingly as Joe Egg. Gallows humour is their primary coping mechanism and it is startling at first just how brutal their constant jokes can come across. Bri tries his luck at coaxing Shiela into a quickie upstairs before Joe is returned from her daycare, but is promptly denied due to his cold hands and Shiela’s busy schedule of feeding the animals, preparing for Joe’s return and getting ready for rehearsals at her local amateur drama society. The dry joviality of their patter is punctured when Joe is finally wheeled into the room and a surreal hush descends over the entire auditorium.
Storme Toolis is the first disabled actor in history to play the role of Josephine and does so with dedication and trust in her castmates, who she has to rely on to physically carry her around and wipe her face. In particular moments, she can say more with a twitch of the arm and twinkle of the eye than the pages worth of verbose witticisms exclaimed by the other characters. Like the script itself (based on Peter Nichol’s own experience of raising a disabled child) Toolis is unsentimental about Joe’s condition (a far more extreme example than her own cerebral palsy) and presents an honest truth about the challenges enforced by fate upon Joe and her parents.
The other cast members each do a fine job in performing this surreal, at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking piece. Toby Stephen’s manic portrayal of Bri finds the sad poetry in his fatalistic attitude and desperate fun-making. Claire Skinner is in comfortable territory as Sheila, essentially playing a more troubled version of her well-loved character Sue from Outnumbered, which fits the bill quite perfectly. Clarence Smith and Lucy Eaton appear in act II as Shiela’s champagne socialist friends from the drama society and are both delightful in their hypocrisy and smugness but the show is well and truly stolen when Patricia Hodge arrives as Bri’s mother, Grace. Hodge (a stage and TV veteran, recently well-known for playing Penny in BBC’s Miranda) shows such a masterful display of comic timing and knowing restraint that her underplayed quips bring the house down.
The set by Peter McKintosh is impressive, however the revolving trick is only used to bookend the action within the house and looked like more faffing than was worth it for the effect. The realism of the living room (slightly lessened by a budgie in a cage that is distracting in its stillness) contrasts with the purposeful studio look surrounding it. Marks are clearly taped on the floor and some equipment is left visible in the wings. The step down from the raised set into the studio is a barrier that the performers literally cross to engage the audience directly, in surreal and amusing expositionary duologues or sobering and poignant monologues. The watercolour washes of Prima Metha’s lighting compliment the set and script perfectly. Subtle changes in hue with occasional sudden shifts to spotlight enhance the often drastic shifts in mood.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a play that is hard to imagine being written in a modern, PC age. The brutality of the humour and raw honesty in the way it deals with its subject matter makes for a toe-curling, difficult watch. At its core, though, we witness a story that is completely human; a mass of contradictions, a constant battle between faith and fatalism, care for others versus bare-faced self-interest – the paper-thin line between comedy and tragedy. It gets under your skin and stays there, which is a hallmark of worthwhile theatre.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg plays at Trafalgar Studios One until 30th November.
Reviewed by Jim Dixon
All images © Marc Brenner
30 September 2019, Trafalgar Studio One