Saturday 26th October 2019, matineé
We’ve been on the look-out for a revival of Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and when we saw that Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner were going to be starring in the play at the Trafalgar studios, we booked immediately, thinking they might possibly have found the dream cast – Stephens with his considerable talent for dark comedy, and Skinner with her effortless ability to exude unfeasible levels of patience and good humour.
It is hard to believe this play was written just over 50 years ago – the theme of parents grappling with the care of a profoundly disabled child is as current as ever, and this courageous exploration of the dilemmas they face stands the test of time – few playwrights have combined such frankness with such empathy since.
The play centres around Brian and Sheila and their daughter Josephine, and shines a spotlight onto a single day in their lives, whilst telling the family’s story through a series of vignettes. Near the end of the play, a family friend tells Brian that his relentless gallows humour, something which perhaps started as a coping strategy, has turned into a slow poison which is slowly killing him from the inside out. Ironically, it felt to us that it was the relaxed, Vaudevillian, and darkly comic style of the play that lets the audience in too, without scaring us off. Whatever, difficulties they face, we can see that this couple have lost none of their humanity. Crucially they are not saints. The play is fierce in its determination to break through the taboos and cliches that surround disability, illness and parenting.
This production gives the play a light, naturalistic touch, in a relatively small space, with a fantastic cast. Toby Stephens uses his comedic abilities to the full, bursting onto the stage with a classic teacher’s monologue to the class, in which he harangues members of the audience. However, we soon start to realise that he is quietly driving himself mad with his own thoughts, in a domestic atmosphere where there is no place for pessimism. He is part of the ‘menagerie’, his feelings just another thing for matriarch Sheila to ‘manage’. There are some joyful moments of pure slapstick, but Stephens’ performance is driven by an inner agitation that never switches off, whether he is trying to steal a kiss over a cup of tea, or contemplating the unthinkable. It makes for a riveting performance, brimming over with energy but never showy.
Claire Skinner has another kind of extraordinary energy. She has the unenviable job of portraying a character of unshakeable inner strength, whose main tragedy, it emerges, is that however hard she tries, she cannot instill her sense of optimism and unconditional love into her husband. The dynamics of the drama demand her to be a constant, still, presence, and she rises to the task with absolute integrity. She brings humour, compassion and pain in equal measure to the part.
Amongst a strong supporting cast, we have to give a mention to Clarence Smith as the well-intentioned Freddie, a rich socialist who is determined to ‘help’, and whose main crime is having no sense of humour. He steadfastly resists the temptation as an actor to point ironically at his character’s frailties.
This production boasts a very important first, according to the Evening Standard – the first time that a disabled actor has been cast in the role of Josephine in the West End. Storme Toolis, who has cerebral palsy, commented that “I definitely feel that as a disabled actor there are interesting familiar relationships in this play, but I don’t draw a lot on my own experiences. Everybody is different, so my job is to portray Joe’s story.”
Director Simon Evans said “Putting a more able-bodied actor in the role might have made for a more sentimental performance and Storme is unsentimental about her condition. She has, in a way, given people a huge permission to talk this way about a disabled person.”