A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
Reviewed – 3rd October 2019
“This production of Joe Egg is one that refuses to truly grapple with the depths of the text, failing to deliver or connect as a result”
In the wake of Peter Nichols’ death just under a month ago, it shines a different kind of light on the somewhat autobiographical play that propelled him to fame as a writer – a poignant retrospective on the legacy he leaves behind. It’s a shame then that this production doesn’t seem to quite live up to that legacy.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg centres on schoolteacher Bri (Toby Stephens) and his am-dram fanatic wife Sheila (Claire Skinner) in an average day of their lives coping with the strains and stresses that caring for their highly disabled daughter Joe (Storme Toolis, marking the first time in West End history a disabled actor has taken the role) impose on their relationship and psyches. It is a testament to Nichols that the subject matter of this story still feels hugely relevant today, despite the play’s premiere being over half a century ago, and the way the characters use dark humour as a coping mechanism rings very truthfully. Nichols also employs the breaking of the fourth wall to make the telling of the story more intimate, making the audience almost feel more like psychiatrists as Bri and Sheila confess their darkest and innermost feelings of guilt and perseverance.
However, the direct address is also one of Joe Egg’s shortfalls. Forgoing the famous rule of ‘show, don’t tell’, the first act is comprised mostly of Bri and Sheila jumping down from Peter McKintosh’s beautifully rendered living room set onto the bare front of the stage to explain every detail about Joe to the audience, as though they were frantically trying to justify her inclusion in the play. It’s appreciated that when Joe Egg was first produced this was probably quite a necessary feature of the script, but unfortunately here it drags, and the staging especially feels like a misstep from director Simon Evans.
The treacly pacing isn’t helped by a tonal flatline throughout almost the entire piece. Aside from some peaks and troughs in the second act thanks to the introduction of new characters, everything feels like it’s running on one level. We’re told that Bri uses humour to deflect pain and is emotionally manipulative but Stephen’s portrayal never takes us beneath the surface. We’re told that Sheila had a sultry past but we only ever see Skinner being worried for most of the runtime. And the self-awareness these characters have that they are in a play leads to a self-assuredness in everything they say, conveying the feeling nothing really matters and nothing is at stake. Which does not make for engaging theatre.
Bri’s mother Grace (Patricia Hodge) and middle class couple Freddie and Pam (Clarence Smith and Lucy Eaton respectively) provide a greater sense of emotional momentum in the second half, forcing Bri and Sheila to reckon with themselves in a far more exciting way but at that point it’s almost too little too late. This production of Joe Egg is one that refuses to truly grapple with the depths of the text, failing to deliver or connect as a result, and misses the opportunity to do justice to some of the first steps Nichols took over fifty years ago in the representation of disability in the arts, and the doors his work has since opened.
Reviewed by Ethan Doyle
Photography by Marc Brenner
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
Trafalgar Studios until 30th November
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: