A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Wed 22nd – Sat 25th February 2012

reviews

Alexander Stone

at 01:21 on 23rd Feb 2012

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A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was written by award winning Bristolian playwright Peter Nichols in 1967, and heavily inspired by his own experience raising his handicapped child. This production sublimely captured the different ways people deal with conflicts and issues that refuse to be resolved, and the tensions and contradictions these coping mechanisms produce.

This play was hilariously funny. I should quantify that I believe humour has no boundaries, and Joe Egg certainly shared that belief. The audience were given a whistle-stop induction to Brian’s (Ollie Jones-Evans) eclectic and relentless humour from the outset. The play begins with Brian on the steps beside the audience as a schoolteacher disciplining us as a naughty class. This included an eventual command for ‘hands on head, eyes forward’ that had to be obeyed before the production would progress. After a brief end of day reunion with his wife Sheila (Maureen Lennon), their daughter Joe (Fayrouz Essack) returns home from her day centre. The sight of her awkwardly curled into a wheelchair is stark, but starker yet is Brian’s one-man duologue recounting her day's activities - despite the fact Joe clearly can’t move, talk, or express herself at all.

It quickly becomes clear that humour is this household’s way of coping with the extreme abnormality Joe represents – or at least Brian’s way. Joe is given a voice by her parents in much the same way many give to their pets, and then manipulated through this to echo darkly ridiculous opinions like wanting to go to the local grammar school - to avoid the riff-raff at the local comprehensive where Brian works. These displays had much of the audience stifling giggles, and never has the phrase “comedy is tragedy plus time” been truer.

From here on in the play only gets more unabashed and contradictory. The cast quickly break down the fourth wall with short soliloquies, a play within a play charting Joe’s birth and subsequent problems, and a journey into Sheila’s imagination just before the interval. Upon return, three new characters are introduced and the emotional rollercoaster continues. It is here that Freddie (Tom Rawlinson) prompts the eventual critical juncture of the play when he asks “isn’t there a point where the joke starts using you?” Pacing was strong, and there was a clear sense of initial surface harmony, from which a loose thread was tugged and unravelled, building up to a tense and climactic penultimate scene.

For this reviewer, every actor was outstanding. Each role had a strong character of the period to identify with; from the meddling bourgeois socialist factory owner and his prim and proper "keeping up with the Joneses" wife, to Brian’s passive aggressive elderly mother. They never actually fell into farcical stereotype though, and each one felt authentically fleshed out and individual – with all the inherent contradictions that entails. Particular mention should probably go to Ollie Jones-Evans as Brian who delivered line after line of perfectly timed comedic genius, whipping around the stage to emphasise each punch line.

Without reservation, I recommend you to see this production. The play itself is a stellar literary work exploring human relationships, humour, faith and modern secular society. The extremely cosy theatre at the Alma Tavern suits a performance where audience involvement is high, and every scene takes place in the same fantastically decorated 1960s living room. As long as you can bring yourself to laugh at a “Wegetable” – as Joe’s German paediatrician refers to her – you will thoroughly enjoy yourself.

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Mark Weegmann

at 09:34 on 23rd Feb 2012

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Walking upstairs from an old man style pub into an intimate attic, The Beatle’s playing against a retro fitted lounge with horrendous floral wallpaper and aged couches, it was clear atmosphere was going to be an integral part of the performance. The stage soon became a living space inhabited by a playful married couple – the hyper eccentric, albeit disillusioned dad (Brian), and the committed, maternal mum (Sheila). The atmosphere remains inviting and consistent, but very quickly the performance transcends atmospheric gimmicks and engages with its gross humour, guilt and disadvantage. Through clever dialogue and expressive gestures, the powerful story of an underprepared family coping with a daughter condemned to a permanent vegetative state (Joe) is conveyed brilliantly. Of the cast all six acted with complete authenticity, maximising the power of this difficult storyline. The minimal technical effects and use of props furthered this production’s effectiveness. The play held a wealth of humour, with many laugh out loud moments, but managed to perfectly utilise the power of humour without detracting from this emotional & sensitive story.

Much of the story’s background is communicated through direct audience engagement, using explicit narrative, told through comedic role-play. We learn of the nature of Brian and Sheila’s relationship and the early years of their tribulations with reconciling to Joe’s condition, from a disheartened dad – “I just go through the motions” – to an optimistic mum – “A vegetable couldn’t do that!”. The complexity of their differing outlooks is exasperated by the introduction of friends Freddie and Pam – embodying upper-class elitism – and the grandmother, Grace – desperately lonely as a consequence of self-isolation. With five conflicting, and very vocal, points of views, emotions heighten and Joe bears the consequences.

The play was split into two halves, the first providing family background & relationship dynamics, and the second giving the drama and adding character dimensions. It centred on the issue of a society ill-equipped to deal with mental or physical disability, how family members come to make sense of this, how others perceive the misfortune, and what despair can lead to. The stylistic techniques vividly convey societal norms of the era: unspoken patriarchy, occasional flippant racism, assumed hegemonic family structure, institutional incompetence, and class divide. This is at the heart of what made the play so meaningful to me – how seamlessly the audience becomes engrossed with this micro-family’s struggle in unconventional circumstances against a backdrop of 60’s England, and how hilarious this can be.

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