‘Do you think the story of “Sleeping Beauty” was about a spastic?’ asks Sheila at one point in Peter Nichols’s heart-wrenching comedy about a couple living with their severely disabled child.
It’s a question that evokes the love and desperation of a mother who has been trying to make things better for years while knowing that they won’t get any better.
Blackly comic and steeped to the hilt in music-hall-style flourishes, this 1967 play is very much of its time – you could almost imagine the father’s sardonically jokey role being played by Eric Morecambe. Yet Nichols’s play, written from personal experience, also remains one of the most articulate pieces of theatre about the psychological complexities of living with a child who will never attain anything resembling normal adulthood.
It should be said that in the vast disability spectrum – at one end of which normal adulthood certainly can be achieved – Joe Egg, as her parents call her, is an extreme case. Ralf Little’s schoolteacher father, all corduroy and elbow patches, who clearly still longs to be the naughty boy at the back of the class, describes to the audience how his wife’s labour took five days.
The result is a baby who the German paediatric expert crudely describes as a vegetable: spastic, multiplegic, epileptic, she cannot move on her own or communicate very much apart from distress when she has a fit. Her parents survive the day-to-day grind by inventing alternative personae for her that they perform as a double act, but the comedy of sublimated pain cannot conceal the strain it is having on their marriage.
Director Stephen Unwin, who has written about having a son with profound learning difficulties, ably steers the play along its thin line between black humour and anguish. Little’s Bri and Rebecca Johnson’s warmly empathetic Sheila create a compelling portrait of a fragile marriage, while Jessica Bastick-Vines’ extraordinary performance as Joe provides a haunting focus to an evening with no easy answers.