REVIEW: A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG (Trafalgar Studios) ★★★★

Have you ever met someone who seems to have endless wit and a tongue as sharp as a gazelle, who never seems to run out of jokes but simultaneously appears to be hiding behind them? In ‘A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg‘, We meet Bri, the dark-humoured teacher who is father to disabled daughter Joe and husband to devoted Sheila. Bri adores them both, but not all is how it seems. He and Sheila’s marriage feels subdued, encased in years’ worth of struggle and routine. Sheila sees through her husband’s armour of humour and identifies his mental torment, whilst simultaneously trying to manage her own feelings towards her daughter’s diagnosis and growth. External pressures to parent a certain way and struggles to decide on the ‘right thing’ to do for Joe, for their marriage and for themselves as individuals – but at what point does a family reach its boiling point and start to lose control?

First performed in 1967, ‘A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg‘ gets its intriguing title and heart-aching content from playwright Peter Nichols, who sadly passed away just a few weeks before this production came to the Trafalgar Studios. The story derives from Nichols’ own experience of raising a disabled daughter with his wife Thelma, and thus the play expels a sense of legitimacy to its subject matter throughout.

At various points the actors step away from the action and question the audience directly, such as when Sheila asks: “If it helps him live with her, I can’t see the harm, can you?” The breaking of this fourth wall created waves throughout the room, inspiring murmurs of response, a mixture of agreement and outrage, as we took a moment to consider our own opinions. This is a play that easily provokes your moral compass into action – if I were in these circumstances, what would I do? What would it truly feel like to manage family life in these circumstances?

What with the action happening in one location – the family living room – a sense of suffocation and limitation is suggested, actively creating a pressure on the chest. This is the reality that Bri and Sheila, as parents of a disabled child, have operated within for over 15 years, yet we as the audience are only privy to their lives for a couple of hours.
Bri’s ability to cope disintegrates quickly, and his comedic smokescreen gives way to a suggestion of precariously paper-skin mental health. This characteristic is even more relevant 52 years on from the play’s first staging, in light of our rising statistics of those suffering with depression and other mental health issues.

Particularly in the case of families coping with disabilities: is enough being done to support those who are full or part-time carers (of all ages), and for the disabled individuals themselves? Can more be done to provide the same opportunities for education, housing and general quality of life to those who need it, not just those who benefit from higher levels of privilege?

The casting is spot on. Storme Toolis provides a sensitive and impactful performance as Joe, with a natural paternal closeness felt between her and Claire Skinner, who plays her mother Sheila. Some versions of the play choose not to have the character of Joe visible very often (if at all), however Simon Evans‘ vesion has Toolis present in most scenes, which feels absolutely essential. Skinner’s presentation of a hopeful, fiercley protective mother is both sincere and heartbreaking. Toby Stephens approaches the complex character of Bri with an outpour of emotion, delivering raw, uninhibited anguish dressed up in dark humour, and slowly revealing his psychological instability as the fictional day wears on.

A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg‘ may be 52 years old, but it is ageing well – if anything, it may be more relevant now than it was in the 60s. We now live in a society with more exposure to those with disabilities, but we are not at a stage of openness and acceptance that is desired. This production provides a brief snapshot into the psychological and physical challenges that families across the world are experiencing at this very second, and it calls into question the ways in which we as individuals and society support them. A humbling, thought-provoking performance that will spark crucial conversations and touch both the mind and heart.

Reviewed by Laura Evans
Photo: Marc Brenner

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