A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a dynamic, heartfelt production. Based on the experiences of playwright Peter Nichols, it presents a family raising a severely disabled child. It was first performed in 1967, so the attitudes to disability are less informed than what we are used to today. Joe (Storme Toolis) is a fifteen-year-old girl with cerebral palsy which renders her unable to speak or do anything for herself, she is at the centre of the play, which is mainly presented by her parents Sheila (Claire Skinner), and Bri (Toby Stephens).
The first act focuses on the relationship between Bri and Sheila, it has an interesting take on the struggles of raising a disabled child because of how old Joe is. They treat the matter with a humour that borders on irreverence, but Skinner and Stephens manage to maintain a sense of affection throughout. The dialogue is fast paced and layered, swinging between different accents and impressions, sometimes in the present, sometimes as a flashback. The second act brings in another complication, what happens when other people become involved. Through the introduction of only three characters, the play explores the involved, the charitable, the disinterested how everyone has a different opinion to put forward about the family’s life.
The production plays with the lighting and staging, utilising the floor at the front of the set for monologues and scenes that happen outside of the living room that makes up the main set. The lighting changes to indicate monologues as well. A different shade indicates that the speaker is addressing the audience, sometimes as a simple aside, sometimes a full explanation of motivations and history. Some of the monologues are from two characters at once, which plays even more with the interesting use of the fourth wall. It is a great way of explaining backstories, through monologues that function almost as a flashback.
Stephens stands out throughout, he plays perhaps the most complex character in the production. In all of the flashback scenes he takes on the roles of doctors, vicars and experts, but always through the lens of the character of Bri. His energetic switching between accents, personas and impressions, giving voice to other characters including Joe, really shows the scope of his talent.
This show is a comedy but at times it becomes deeply uncomfortable. It moves from a slice of life of an unusual family to raise the questions of euthanasia and quality of life. The humour gradually falls away, revealing the pain that it hid all along. The audience is captivated through the darker scenes, with the tension in the room palpable.
One important point to note is that this is the first time in the history of the production, since 1967, that the character of Joe is played by a disabled actress. The role of Joe is not always very involved but the aspects she adds are vital for adding a layer of reality to the performance.
All of the cast give a great performance, it is so easy to be drawn into the lives of the characters. The production definitely represents a specific time in the treatment of people with disabilities but many of the issues is raises are still relevant today.