No play about a severely disabled ten year old girl is ever going to be a barrel of laughs, and yet, in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, we watch as the father of the titular character (who has cerebral palsy) desperately tries to make their life into one. The strain in the marriage of Joe’s parents – Sheila (Claudia Hill) and Brian (Sam Ward) – quickly becomes obvious, but Brian tries to sidestep all problems with endless joking and fantasy – only adding to the play’s tense atmosphere.
This play is constantly compelling because it evades all expectations. It starts with a squabble between Sheila and Brian, and I feared the whole play would revolve around two parents’ justified but repetitious arguments over caring for a very sick child. However, the script soon takes a turn. Sheila and Brian enact flashbacks of the events surrounding their daughter Josephine’s (Lucy Delaney) birth and Ward moves with masterful ease between his roles as a carefree GP, an eccentric German doctor, and a bumbling vicar.
New characters halfway through the play refresh the story, bringing a new level of social discomfort to the room. A couple who are friends of Sheila and Brian arrive and the uneasiness of the dolled-up wife, Pam (Lucy Rands), adds extra humour to the situation. Rands gives a great performance in that she both manages to repel the audience and tap into their concerns. Her blithe comments on what she calls ‘NPA (non-physically attractive) people’ are horribly insensitive when applied to Josephine; I wanted to dismiss her as a posh bitch, but at the same time, I couldn’t help admitting that her comments on Joe being “better off dead” were what the play had been provoking the audience to seriously consider since its beginning.
Moreover, the acting is excellent. Brian’s mother, Grace, (Maude Morrison) is extremely convincing in her portrayal of an irritating mother-in-law (no doubt helped by the costuming which made it hard to believe the actress wasn’t actually a pensioner), and Claudia Hill’s interpretation of a mother torn between guilt for her daughter’s condition, and enraged frustration with her husband’s behaviour is incredibly sensitive and engaging.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a powerful play which is well worth seeing for the ethical questions it asks. Do you sympathise with Brian’s sick fantasies of killing Josephine and, if so, what kind of a person does that make you? Would sending Josephine away to a residential home make Sheila the bad mother she fears? By the time the play ended, I felt suitably affected by the claustrophobic atmosphere that the faded decor and the actors’ bickering created.
**** (4 Stars)
PHOTO/ Tomas Elliot