'A Day in the Death of Joe Egg': Theater Review

Marc Brenner
Toby Stephens and cast in 'A Day in the Death of Joe Egg'
No pain, no gain.
11/30/2019

Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner star in a timely revival of Peter Nichols' acclaimed dark comedy, opening just weeks after the British playwright's death.

Playwright Peter Nichols died last month, so he didn't get a chance to see a rare revival of his best-known play, which was written more than 50 years ago but is as bitterly, boisterously relevant as ever. In fact, perhaps more so, given that today's society talks more of the challenges and pressures of caring for loved ones. When Nichols wrote in the 1960s of a couple's struggles raising their severely disabled 15-year-old daughter, inspired by this own family's experience, the subject was virtually taboo.

One thing that won't have changed is the shock value of the language Nichols gives his characters to numb and camouflage their pain. If the subject were tackled in today's politically correct, woke-sensitive times, it would be a very different play — earnest, touchy-feely, emotionally unrestrained. And it probably wouldn't be anywhere near as truthful.

That said, this is an oddly lukewarm production, which only partially delivers on the play's deep well of feeling.

Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner are Bri and Sheila. He's a schoolteacher, she's heavily involved in amateur dramatics, the couple's lives otherwise confined to their home and Josephine, "Joe," who requires their constant attention.

Severely mentally and physically disabled, Joe is confined to a wheelchair in which she's often slumped, gasping for breath or crying. In lieu of a discernible personality, her parents give her one — speaking to and for her, inventing a life she might be living, filling the gaps. In the meantime, their own lives have died on the vine.

Their coping mechanism is irony and black humor. They call each other "mum" and "dad," in the realization that these roles are not the ones they anticipated, or that most others enjoy. Bri shows an over-eager relish in the names he calls his daughter — "spastic," "vegetable"; he titles his painted portrait of her, "The Thalidomide Kid."

The pair also engage in morbid jaunts down the memory lane of Joe's difficult birth, misdiagnosis and subsequent problems — Sheila playing herself, Bri the doctors and others of their story; while she's the one going to am-dram, he's clearly the ham.

These reenactments have a vaudevillian flavor in their gusto, the scene changes, the way they're presented directly to the audience — a Nichols technique that ensures that onlookers can't shy away from the complicated emotions at play. It's when characters break that fourth wall as individuals that we realize the gulf between the couple — between Bri's resignation to despair and Sheila's determined hope, and thus their varying ability to cope.

We also learn that Sheila is humoring her husband. "She's no trouble, Brian," she tells him, when she does lose patience. "She's only one kind of cripple. Everyone is damaged inside." And here's an added dimension to the conundrum: Whatever the pressures created by Joe's condition, Bri brings his own flaws to the table.

With his shirt hanging out, the school uniform-style tie, the laddish inflections, he seems more like an over-sized schoolboy than a teacher, and invariably acts like one: attention-seeking, spoiled, a mother's boy — with mum (Patricia Hodge) making a manipulative, wholly unhelpful appearance that proves the point. It's amazing they've lasted this long.

Designer Peter McKintosh works to this theme. With its 1960s/'70s multi-colored furnishings and Bri's cowboy-themed paintings on the walls, the living room has the garish aspect of a child's playroom — not Joe's, but Bri's. And Stephens' energetic performance (a bit too thespian for a character who apparently doesn't like the theater) dominates proceedings in exactly the way a needy, desperate, jealous man would. 

The writing still sparkles, with its ability to engender a great deal of bashful laughter. And the leads do convey the tension between loving the child you have but coveting the one you don't. At the same time, their characters' pretense and emotional misdirection conceal a veritable volcano of feeling that is never fully tapped here; we rarely, really feel the extent of their pain — Stephens too immersed in his petulance, Skinner revealing too little beneath her character's resilience.

Nichols has presented a tough balancing act, between concealing and revealing, humor and pain, but it's one that that can be more rewardingly expressed, as it was by Clive Owen and Victoria Hamilton in London in 2001. This production's director, Simon Evans, recently staged Tracy Letts' Killer Joe at the Trafalgar, another evening that failed to deliver on its firecracker potential. Perhaps he needs to let his actors go a bit.

For her part, Storme Toolis movingly conveys Joe's unimaginable torment, while enjoying the girl's brief fantasy release from her shackles in announcing the intermission — a release of which parents in this situation must so frequently dream.

Venue: Trafalgar Studios, London
Cast: Toby Stephens, Claire Skinner, Lucy Eaton, Patricia Hodge, Clarence Smith, Storme Toolis,
Playwright: Peter Nichols
Director: Simon Evans
Set and costume designer: Peter McKintosh
Lighting designer: Preme Mehta
Music and sound designer: Edward Lewis
Presented by Trafalgar Theatre Productions, Eilene Davidson Productions