A Day In the Death of Joe Egg at the Rose Theatre Kingston.
This seminal, semi-autobiographical play by the brilliant writer Peter Nichols opens with a teacher shouting at a classroom of children, which is us, the audience. He gets us to put our hands up, down and on our heads. He rebukes latecomers and certainly, if there had been any rustling of noisy wrappers, he would have been shouting at the guilty sweet munchers about that as well but it was clear, after just a few seconds, that no one would dare offend in such a way. Ralf Little as the compelling, tormented teacher Bri had the class under complete control. The play had us in its grip, and so it remained for the next tormented yet hilarious two hours.
Among other things, this was about breaking down walls, the walls that exist between people with disabilities and the rest of the world, between convention and the pain of reality, and the walls that can’t be broken.
First to go was that famous ‘fourth wall’ of the theatre, and then more followed, but the one that stood, unbreakable, was that between us and the disabilities of Joe, played with haunting truthfulness by Jessica Bastick-Vines.
Under Stephen Unwin’s direction, the play remains as relevant, shocking and yet comic as it must have been to audiences who saw it first in the 1960s. Nichols’ own daughter was severely disabled and died when she was 11. Unwin has a son with profound learning disabilities. The programme at The Rose has deeply moving articles by both men on the history of the play and the impact of having a child with disabilities on family and friends. Rebecca Johnson portrays the quietly desperate yet utterly real love that Sheila has for her barely-responsive daughter. It is not just parents and friends of people with disabilities who will recognise and empathise with this but also the children-carers of parents with dementia. Can there be anyone alive at present without experience of loving someone who has little mind, or who has lost what they once had?
Bri and Sheila turn to humour as a coping mechanism. ‘Never mind, you break up in two days,’ Sheila tells her husband after another terrible day at school. ‘I broke up years ago,’ he responds. Bri tells his daughter off for having fits. The pathos is almost unbearable. Simon Higlett’s clever set design has Monty Python’s hand of God pointing down at the domestic scene, complete with virtual cats, budgies and other animals, with crooked doors and crooked walls in surreally bright primary colours. Joe is ‘only one kind of cripple,’ we are told. Everybody is damaged in some way.
An alternative view is provided in the second half by the entry of Pamela, played by Sally Tatum, and Freddie, Owen Oakeshott. Bri has accused his wife of having an affair with Freddie but this turns out to be simply a device by him to create an emotional dynamic between him and his spouse in a home where everything must revolve around the child. Pamela, meanwhile, confesses quite guiltlessly to being unable to stand anything ‘npa’ – not physically attractive. She is desperate to return home to her own perfectly beautiful children.
The great writing, heartfelt direction and powerful acting make this a play not to be missed. Few can be untouched in today’s world by the issues it covers. Disability and the responses it evokes are better understood now than they were but we still have so much to learn, and there can be almost no better way to learn these important lessons than in a context such as this, where home truths are driven home with love, tenderness and humility. But driven home they certainly are. It was a memorable evening, and we learned a lot.
Review by Ruth Gledhill @ruthiegledhill
Wednesday 8th May 2013