Review: A Day in The Death of Joe Egg, Trafalgar Studios
PUBLISHED: 14:00 04 October 2019
Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner shine as the struggling parents of a severely disabled child in a lacerating black comedy that will make you laugh and cry
Not all taboo-busting 60s plays stand up to modern translation, but Peter Nichols' searing black comedy about the pain of raising a severely disabled child features bracingly unsentimental writing including a lacerating take down of negligent doctors, lack of social care, and patronising do-gooders.
Back in 1967 the censor suggested that even depicting severe disability on stage would be distressing and, well, couldn't Jo be played by a dummy?
Today we've modified our language and improved our understanding, but the human issue of how disability impacts a family remain ripe.
Here it's the dynamic between parents Bri and Sheila that has lost little of its power as the unbearable strain on their marriage elicits defence mechanisms of mordant humour, roleplay and Vaudeville style direct address.
Toby Stephen's depressed teacher Bri is a man close to breaking point after 15 years caring for Jo, poignantly played here by disabled actor Storme Toolis.
Sardonic humour, sick jokes and inventing personalities for his barely conscious daughter are the "anaesthetic" for his pain.
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Less showily, Claire Skinner's Sheila exudes a stoical faith, endless patience and an uncomplicated love for her daughter.
This attention-seeking child-man has become one more person for Sheila to look after, he resents the energy she spends on Jo, she's irritated that he's given up.
When Bri describes his fantasy of smothering the comatose Jo, followed by a farcical game of hide-the-sick-daughter, it's as near the knuckle honesty as you will find - there's no tip-toeing around anything here.
It's testament to Stephens' performance that Bri is never less than sympathetic, even when sloping out of the house with his suitcase.
You never doubt his love for his family, it's just torn him apart.
Skinner lends the potentially saintly Sheila a funny, rueful edge - when she describes building a tower for Jo to knock down her hope is heartbreaking.
Patricia Hodge does a nice turn as Bri's unhelpful mother 'what would she be like running around?' Clarence Smith offers offensive liberal platitudes about trying for a 'fully working child,' while wife Pam (Lucy Eaton) is nakedly all for benign euthansia - perhaps too broad a brush for what could have been a more probing moral test around quality of life issues.
In keeping with the fourth-wall breaking form, Peter McIntosh's revolving set lays bare theatrical artifice while Director Simon Evans keeps a tight reign on a play that's humane and savage enough to make you laugh and cry.