A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at The Rose Theatre, Kingston - review
PUBLISHED: 13:54 02 May 2013 | UPDATED: 13:54 02 May 2013
Playwright, Peter Nichols, the archetypal ‘angry young man’ of the 1960s, is enjoying something of a revival of late, with his plays Privates on Parade and Born in the Gardens back in the West End and now this powerful black comedy, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg brought to Kingston’s Rose Theatre by imaginative director, Stephen Unwin. Emma Ward reviews the play
Written 45 years ago, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was designed to shock, amuse and break the hearts of its audiences; tackling the then taboo subject of caring for a severely disabled, yet much-loved child. The play takes on something of an irreverent, Vaudeville feel at times, with direct interaction with the audience, mainly by Bri, the fundamentally decent school teacher, brilliantly portrayed by Ralf Little. Bri tackles his lot in life through increasingly dark jokes that turn unsettlingly towards murderous intents. His quips are first addressed to his unresponsive daughter, Joe, then directly to the audience, as he breaks the invisible ‘fourth wall’ to draw us into the action.
In fact, all the characters address the audience directly at times, whether right at the start, when we play the parts of Bri’s unruly pupils, or later when characters try to justify their actions and opinions towards the oblivious Joe, played with empathy and chilling realism by Jessica Bastick-Vines.
Joining Bri in caring for Joe is Sheila, whose fierce maternal love, determination that her daughter’s condition will improve and guilt over her former promiscuity combine to drive her to care for her child at home, adding untold pressure to her already threatened marriage. Sheila is sympathetically portrayed by Rebecca Johnson whose character, while not quite so showy as Bri, enjoys plenty of comic moments - largely while explaining the events of Joe’s life to the audience in a series of superb flashbacks with Bri.
Although the play starts out as a two-hander, Little and Johnson are joined after the interval by family friends, Freddy and Pam, as well as by Bri’s formidable mother, Grace. Owen Oakeshott gives us a perfectly rambunctious Freddy - a wealthy ‘Socialist’ with a barking laugh and stubborn determination to solve Bri and Sheila’s ‘problem’. By contrast, his appalled wife, Pam, portrayed with impeccable comic timing and a believable discomfort by Sally Tatum, is keen to get back to her own ‘gorgeous’ children and perfect world, untainted by the ugly reality of physical disability. Finally, Grace bustles onto the scene with her hand-knitted cardigan and unasked-for advice in an enjoyable cameo by Marjorie Yates.
1960s attitudes to physical disability have, thankfully, moved on in the 45 years since A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was written. Yet while disablist language has evolved, many of the viewpoints in the play still ring true as friends and family struggle to come to terms with a severely disabled child’s condition. Enlightening programme notes detail the director’s own experiences bringing up a disabled child in the 21st Century, which have undoubtedly brought an edge to this deeply powerful production.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg runs at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 18 May. Tickets cost from £8 to £28.50 and are available from the Box Office or online: https://uk.patronbase.com/_RoseTheatreKingston/Productions/5034/Performances