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A CurtainUp LondonReview
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is Nichols' most famous play, a 1967 black comedy about the parents of a child severely damaged at birth. It was included in the National Theatre's list of the 100 most significant plays of the twentieth century and went on to Broadway with Albert Finney as Bri. A film was subsequently made with Janet Suzman as Sheila and Alan Bates as Bri.
Nicholl's Passion Play was successfully revived in 1999/2000 at the Donmar Warehouse and the Comedy Theatre and this winter sees the musical Privates on Parade being staged at the Donmar Warehouse. We are also well into a Sixties revival on the London stage with Luther at the National, The Homecoming at the Comedy and Afore Night Come at the Young Vic.
Nichols and his wife were themselves the parents of a severely handicapped daughter and the play has elements of autobiography. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is still controversial as people feel it may offend those who are raising severely handicapped children. I personally find it tender and funny, and believe that humour keeps this family going when faced with such sadness.
Joe Egg's first act features the immediate family of Bri, a schoolteacher (Clive Owen) and Sheila, his wife (Victoria Hamilton) and their ten year old daughter who is called "Joe" which is short for Joe Egg, a phrase that Sheila's grandmother used, "Sitting about like Joe Egg" to describe times when she had nothing to do. Bri and Sheila between them relate their experience of the baby's birth, the process of medical investigations into the baby's condition, with Sheila playing herself and Bri taking the part of the professionals. Their child needs constant care at the most basic level and is incapable of speech or any communication other than an intermittent shriek.
That first act is a masterpiece of comedy and comic acting. It opens in the school that Bri works in as a teacher with his comments to the class directly addressed to the audience. "Eyes front! Hands on your head! We're going to have a moments perfect silence before you go.". The scene switches to the flat where Bri and Sheila play out what looks like a well rehearsed and often acted routine, they look surprised as if either one of them is improvising, deviating from the pattern. They "corpse" in a fit of giggles so convincingly that the American drama students were turning to their scripts at the interval to see if what he said was actually in the script or improvised! Often they address the audience directly, underlining their involvement of us. Clive Owen is wonderful as he role plays the inept, rugby playing general practitioner, the Viennese paediatrician with his jacket worn back to front, pronouncing vegetable as wegetable and the trendy vicar with the rose tinted spectacles. They see saw between comedy and tragedy and back again. Victoria Hamilton too is altogether softer like her mohair jumper and more weary as the primary care giver to this poor child. She is racked by self blame. They are a likeable, lovely, amusing couple and the performances are staggeringly good.
In the second act we see the reaction of friends of the couple, "champagne socialist" Freddie and his ghastly wife, Pam (John Warnaby and Robin Weaver). Bri's mother, Grace, played by Prunella Scales is openly antagonistic to her daughter-in-law, whose pre-marital sexual adventures Grace absurdly blames for Joe's handicap. Bri tries to let his daughter die by not administering her medicine and leaving her in the cold car but Sheila is frantic to save her daughter and rushes her to hospital. Finally we see Bri sneak out of the house, unable to cope any longer and unable to tell Sheila that he is leaving the marriage.
The introduction of the secondary characters weakens the play. I much preferred them impersonated. Freddie and Pam are rather dated. Politically aspiring Freddie is full of advice and patronising "help" and snob Pam just recoils from "N.P.A.", her shorthand for "Non- Physically Attractive, " "old women in bathing costumes" Freddie's function is to challenge Bri and Sheila's use of humour, "Isn't that the whole fallacy of the sick joke? It kills the pain but leaves the situation just as it was?" Prunella Scales is expert as the cardigan knitting, garrulous grandmother, Grace, terminally resentful and openly critical of her daughter in law. Catalina Blackman is just perfect as the little girl in the wheelchair with her head lolling to one side.
The school set is a dramatic, arty frame of blackboard and chalk equations and the box set flat is full of colourful 1960s furniture, Bri's political paintings and decorated for Christmas and feeling cheerful. Laurence Boswell's direction keeps the whole play flowing smoothly with the cast often addressing the audience directly and individually, as staged by Nichols. Clive Owen has currently been very successful in the film thriller Croupier. He was in the original cast of Patrick Marber's Closer and his performance in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg shows his versatility as he handles this tragi-comic role with verve.