‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
© Marc Brenner

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Listless revival of the late Peter Nichols’s black comedy about two parents and their disabled daughter

Sheila (Claire Skinner) has two kids. One is Joe (Storme Toolis), her severely disabled 15-year-old daughter. The other is Bri (Toby Stephens), the middle-aged schoolteacher and amateur painter she married.  

Peter Nichols’s semi-autobiographical play about the family shows the offbeat style of humour Bri and, to a lesser extent, Sheila have developed to cope with providing 24-hour care to Joe since the day she was born. It premiered in 1967 and, if anything, the jokes probably sound more shocking now than they did then. It’s noticeable that the audience often respond more with awkward tittering or nervous half-laughs than booming LOLs.

In many ways, that’s entirely fitting. Nichols’ work is really about the strangeness of humour. In particular, the way it was used to cover up emotion for a generation of men post-war who were encouraged to preserve the British stiff upper lip at all costs.

As the wisecracking father, Stephens makes Bri a goofy man-child with an uncomfortably tense edge, like he’s on the verge of losing it and smashing all the crockery if you don’t howl at his next punch line. Along with covering everything up with a joke, Bri is intensely needy. He vies for his wife’s attention constantly, including creating petty jealousies about her pre-marital sex life and any bloke she now comes into contact with. 

There’s a lot that’s interesting about ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’. But Simon Evans’s production is oddly unsatisfying. The stakes never feel that high, even at the point of something seriously dramatic happening towards the end. Long monologues delivered by the couple who step in and out of the action also don’t help, instead of helping us get inside the characters’ heads, they only provide more opportunities for clowning around. 

Perhaps it’s a case of being a victim of its own successfully-made point: for a play about covering everything up, it certainly feels like we’re only getting the surface layer.

By: Rosemary Waugh

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