“There’s a limit to what you can do”
Good theatre makes you think, but great theatre makes you dig deep to really contemplate the deeper questions in life and how you might react in a similar situation. Peter Nichols’ 1967 play A Day In The Death of Joe Egg sits firmly in the latter category and in this magnificent production – a joint effort between the Rose Theatre Kingston and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and directed by Stephen Unwin – it deals sensitively but firmly with the challenging reality of being parents to a severely disabled child.
Schoolteacher Bri hates his job and dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian – a juxtaposition which is beautifully realised in a highly amusing opening sequence – but his dissatisfaction has much deeper roots. His 10 year old daughter Josephine can’t do anything unaided or communicate with the outside world and the strains on his marriage to Sheila are really starting to show, they get by turning their life into one big comedy routine to numb themselves from the brutal truth of their situation.
As this central couple, Ralf Little and Rebecca Johnson are heart-breakingly good. The tragedy of Bri’s desperation at what he sees as the growing hopelessness of his life is well-essayed by Little and intensified by the almost farcical comedy that Nichols counterpoints it with. And Johnson radiates a different kind of strength as the ‘one who copes’, no less funny or moving but somehow more connected, more certain that they are on the right course. Their interactions with their child are just gorgeous, whether singing a carol, murmuring about the silkiness of her skin, joking about the day’s activities, one is never in doubt of the immense love they hold.
And as they relay the horrendous trials of their daughter’s treatment by an unfeeling world and skirt around the question of whether it is all really worth it, it is impossible not to be grabbed by their dilemmas and be shocked at the way the society did (and to a large extent still does…) treat those who are different. These external viewpoints are brought to life by a sharply observed supporting cast – Owen Oakeshott’s ostentatiously understanding Freddie and Sally Tatum’s precious Pamela being two of Sheila’s friends, and Marjorie Yates’ marvellously blunt Grace, Bri’s mother – all of whom give voice to the things we dare not say and really force us to interrogate the attitudes we possess.
It is frequently very funny – something alluded to by Simon Higlett’s bright Monty Python inspired set – but the humour is always bittersweet as we’re never allowed to forget the gravity of the subject matter. And Nichols and Unwin – both of whom know exactly of what they speak from personal experience – further remind us of this by keeping Joe in the centre of our vision for much of the play, Jessica Bastick-Vines giving an extraordinary physical performance. Yet it never becomes too much, the seriousness is levied with humour, its anguish with compassion, and together it makes a combination that demands to be seen.