Review - A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at Trafalgar Studios
Peter Nichols died just last month, aged 92, but here's living and welcome proof that a great playwright's work is bound to outlive him. In a career that also spanned premieres at the National and the RSC, his first major hit was A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, originally premiered at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre in 1967, before transferring to the West End and then Broadway. Returning now for its second West End revival since then, it remains a shatteringly personal play and a deeply involving one.
Based on Nichols's own experience of having a severely disabled child, it shows the coping mechanisms employed by the parents, and the marital strains it puts on them. If that sounds bleak, Nichols leavens it with ripples of dark humour; but he also constantly involves and implicates the audience, too, as we are frequently directly addressed by each of the participants. Right at the start of the play, Toby Stephens's Bri - who is a schoolteacher - calls his class (us) to attention and instructs us to put our hands on our heads.
We are immediately part of the drama, and Nichols never lets either his characters or their audience off the hook. "Why me?", asks the mother. "Why not me?", she answers her own question. It's a play and a situation shot through with pain - but also human resilience and love, too.
Though characters go off to find telephone boxes to make calls from, and we now have more awareness around disability, the play has not dated in other ways: above all, it is compassionate, but never patronising.
Director Simon Evans addresses the play's metatheatrical devices cleverly, staging the family drama in a doll's house-like structure (designed by Peter McKintosh) that contains their lounge, but letting the characters step out of it onto a forestage for other locations. And the production boasts a trio of spellbinding central performances, with Claire Skinner in tender, heartbreaking form as the mother, Toby Stephens jittery and anxious as the father, and Patricia Hodge as his practical, determined mother, not shy of showing her resentments towards her daughter-in-law.
But the production's integrity is also superbly demonstrated by casting young actor Storme Toolis, who herself has cerebral palsy, in the title role. It puts the disability at the centre of the play in plain sight, and we can't look away. Nor, watching this finely-tuned production, would we want to.
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