Pros: Sensitive and touching with a truly excellent cast.
Cons: The diction could use a little work and some lines are hurtled through.
In the late Sixties when Peter Nichols’ play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg first premiered at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, the social issues in it were both challenging and shocking and they remain just as pertinent to this day. The play shows a married couple coping with the challenges of caring for their severely mentally and physically disabled daughter Josephine.
The jokes are often crude and off-colour as Bri (Barnaby Hatch) and Sheila (Sarah Kempton) use black humour to deal with the daily struggle of tending to Jo (Hannah Vesty). Throughout the piece, they share their inner turmoil with the audience through monologues spoken directly to us.
Each role is a challenging one, including that of the disabled Jo and family friends Freddie (James Lawrence) and Pam (Isla Lindsay) and Bri’s mother Grace (Julie Ross). There is no escaping the central issue of how we as a society and as individuals, treat the disabled, with each actor coping with the challenge fantastically. There are particular references used by Nicholls that are a tad dated, yet the way he discusses ideas about disabled care, euthanasia and marriage (amongst other things) feels entirely contemporary.
Hatch and Kempton cover a wide emotional spectrum throughout the show and express moments of the spectacular within these difficult roles. In the increasingly dishevelled and desperate Bri, Hatch finds some tremendous strength, a good deal of humanity, whilst also somehow causing us to feel utter revulsion at him. There is a touch of the Basil Fawlty in some of Hatch’s performance but the comparison is a favourable one, the comedy is much needed. Kempton takes a while longer to open up to the audience, partly the structure of the script, partly the nature of her performance. But when she does, we feel a horrible, aching empathy, ourselves willing along with her for Jo to show some, any improvement.
Lawrence and Lindsay as the middle-class couple may seem like comic relief at first but once you scratch beneath the surface, both their characters hold a greater deal of depth. Pam is refreshingly honest, even if her opinions make her unlikeable to an audience. The fact she expresses them so honestly is what is engaging. Lawrence gives a well-rounded performance as Freddie, at first slippery, then showing real courage of conviction when standing up to Bri, then calm and collected in a crisis. Ross as the interfering mother Grace rounds off the cast nicely as what could be a one-note character is revealed as much more complex. She shows Grace floundering in a situation that she just cannot understand but desperately wants to, clinging onto her son as the one possibly good thing left in her life.
The set also fitted aptly, capturing that late Sixties / early Seventies complete lack of decorative taste perfectly. The only thing I would say is that although the onstage world is brilliantly created, the sense of the offstage world is somewhat fuzzier. It took me a while to figure out where the two onstage doors led to in the house and I was then left puzzled by the manner of some of the characters’ exits.
A neat show with terrific performances, showing that a play doesn’t have to be radically different in form to be challenging. A strong text on a difficult subject matter that is delivered well, will do just fine.
Although its run is London is now over, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg will be at the Manor Pavilion in Sidmouth from 11 to 17 September.
Author: Peter Nichols
Director: Bronagh Lagan
Producer: Paul Taylor-Mills
Designer: David Shields
Box office: 020 8858 7755
Booking Link: http://ticketing.greenwichtheatre.org.uk/single/EventListing.aspx
Booking until: 9 June 2014