There’s a line in Peter Nichols’ autobiographical, breakthrough play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, in which Grace, the domineering mother of the protagonist Bri, reacts to her son’s observation that she’s “a pain in the arse” by looking directly at the audience and disdainfully remarking, “I hate a play with language.”
Apparently, so did the Lord Chamberlain, whose office at the time demanded the removal of the words “sod”, "piss,” “bastard” and phrases such as “your legs thrashing about,” “your tongue halfway down my throat” and “train screaming into a tunnel” – all of which make their way into the first edition of the printed text.
It wasn’t the play’s language that sent tremors through the conventional foundations of the West End when it opened at the Comedy (now Pinter) theatre in 1967, but the levity taken with its grim subject matter: the impossible burden placed on a marriage when the couple discovers their baby daughter is critically disabled. No laughing matter, to be sure. But by breaking down the fourth wall of Peter McKintosh’s revolving living-room set and turning the play into a kind of vaudeville during which the cast regularly engages with the audience, Nichols, whose own daughter was severely handicapped, lightens the mood and, as a defence mechanism against the pain of the situation, draws as much laughter as he possibly can.
The “comedian” in our midst is the aforementioned Bri (Toby Stephens), a cynical school teacher who resorts to impersonation – be it members of the medical profession or the clergy – to anaesthetise himself from the ongoing realisation that his 15-year-old daughter Joe (Storme Toolis) will always be a 24/7 burden, imprisoning both himself and his wife Sheila (Clair Skinner) in a life he finds impossible to endure and which is slowly driving him to despair.
Sheila, however, has never lost her love for the constantly demanding Joe, or her faith that, against all the odds, things may improve. How both parents, in their different ways, attempt to cope with Joe’s disability forms the basis of the play’s first half, in which, it has to be said, Bri’s self-pity and his constant role-playing to disguise it, become somewhat trying and repetitive.
More happens in the livelier second half with the appearance of Bri’s bossy mother Grace (Patricia Hodge) and two not-so-close friends, Freddie (charismatic Clarence Smith), a successful, self-satisfied, insensitive socialist who, he says, tends to raise his voice when he’s helping people, and his snobby, uptight wife Pam (Lucy Eaton). Nichols also draws humour from Grace’s needling relationship with her daughter-in-law as well as from Freddie and Pam’s unsettling approach to Joe’s physical presence and how best to cope with it.
While sadness and heartbreak underpin the play, laughter is always present. Stephens’ brash central performance, however, isn’t as immersive, funny or affecting as his predecessors Joe Melia and Eddie Izzard. And while color-blind casting is fine as long as it doesn’t distort the playwright’s intentions, as good as Smith’s performance is, casting a black actor as Freddie makes it hard to believe that, in 1967, his snobbish, social-climbing wife, who talks about P.L.U. (people like us) would ever marry a man of color.
There are excellent performances from Skinner and Hodge, and a memorable one from Toolis, herself disabled, and who, in this revival, plays a teenager rather than the 10-year-old Nichols originally intended.
I have seen subtler, more fluent stagings of the piece than director Simon Evans offers – especially the moments in which the cast addresses the audience. Nor do the noisy changes in the light cues help. But the play itself retains its dual capacity to touch the heart as well as the funny bone, and is well worth seeing.