Some plays dissolve with time. As Co-Directors Lily Blacksell and Rebekah Lucking masterfully proved, Peter Nichol’s 1967 play, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, remains pertinent. This revival was handled with great sensitivity; to the subject matter and the script itself.
Nichol’s semi-autobiographical account explores the hardships faced by Bri, a schoolteacher, and his wife Sheila; a young couple raising a disabled child. Upon its original debut, critic Irving Wardle praised Joe Egg for having ‘significantly shifted our boundaries of taste.’ Indeed, this production walked the tightrope between humour and heartbreak. The frequent jokes, such as calling their daughter Joe ‘a living parsnip,’ allowed one to forget, and later question, what you should and should not laugh at; a deft exploration of why humour is so often intertwined with trauma.
The opening scene was electric. Standing centre stage, Bri, played by Jacob Lovick, addressed the audience as naughty school children. This provided a nice prologue to the frustrations of Bri’s life, both at work and more importantly at home. Lovick, the highlight of the play for me, was utterly convincing. As he stood there trying to command the attention of a ‘hall of children,’ he was every ridiculed teacher I’d ever had. Throughout the play, everything about his mannerisms and voice was a sigh of defeat. What’s more, he handled the music-hall, old comedy club, style of the play very well.
In her programme notes, Blacksell astutely pointed out ‘there is something terribly British about Bri and Sheila’s resort to comedy to help them deal with Joe’s disability.’ Indeed, as Lovick pranced around on stage like a 1960’s Michael McIntyre, with more depth, whether it was to make fun of Freddie, or to try and seduce his wife, one could not help but feel a strong mix of hilarity and pity.
Breaking the fourth wall often takes one out of the story, however in this production it was done so successfully you felt like a confidante of sorts and even, at points, the characters’ psychologist. Finding it easier to confide in the audience than each other, Bri and Sheila replayed key episodes in their life story. This device was especially engaging when Sheila spoke to the audience. A doting, perversely optimistic wife, it soon became clear that she was just playing along with Brian’s jokes and play-acting to keep her husband happy.
Phoebe Brown, who played Sheila, presented a deeply moving portrayal of a woman haunted by guilt. Brown evoked such a sense of compassion and in my eyes was the most empathetic character. Brown and Lovick made for a convincing couple; you believed they were in love, despite the complexities of their relationship.
The second half of the play lurched into Mike Leigh territory, however thankfully never appeared cartoonish. Chloe Culpin expertly played Bri’s Mum, Grace; so uninteresting and self-righteous, the atmosphere instantly became soporific when she spoke. Dan Burke and Emily Howard were infuriatingly funny as Bri and Sheila’s insensitive friends, Freddie and Pam. Burke’s arm-swinging, pacing the living room as if making a Presidential speech, portrayal of the socialist do-gooder was what was precisely needed to contrast Lovick’s wired Bri. Whilst the social satire might seem a little heavy handed to a modern audience, Pam’s horrific statement, ‘If I say gas chamber that makes it sound horrid – but I do mean put to sleep,’ is as shocking now as it must have been in the sixties, raising relevant questions about disability and euthanasia.
Rachel Thomas must be commended for handling the role of Josephine with great sensitivity. Her role as a child whose brain does not allow for communicative speech or co-ordinated movement, was never reduced to a caricature. The Directors’ approach of allowing her to remain on stage, and often face the audience, even when not the focus of a scene, was effective. I often found my eyes straying to her, pondering how it must feel to be her, what my coping mechanisms would be if she were my child. Questions not easily resolved, but the beauty of Nichol’s script is that after ten years of caring for her, Brian and Sheila are no closer to understanding either.
Everything about this production was finely judged. From the sky-blue wallpaper and the sad, lack-lustre christmas decorations adorning the Ex-Serviceman’s Club stage, an exquisite venue for this play, to the way Joe startlingly skipped out of her wheelchair to announce the interval. A very good egg, indeed.