THEATRE / An exceedingly good Egg

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST shock in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg comes from the programme. It is 22 years since Peter Nichols's play about a couple with a severely handicapped child was seen in London. Don't ask why. It offers a terrific role for the leading man. It's an opportunity that Clive Owen, who plays Brian in Lisa Forrell's revival, seizes with glee: pulling faces, falling silent, telling lies, telling truths. (It's no surprise that Richard Dreyfuss played the part in America. He knows a good thing.) Joe Egg is unlike any play I've seen; concerns about whether it's dated fade next to the claims that can now be made for it.

The tone is hectic and sketch-like. The conventional homeliness of the couple's living room is soon overturned by the vaudeville atmosphere and the speechless presence of the daughter, Josephine (Katey Crawford Kastin). Joe Egg, in Bri's grandmother's phrase, is someone who sits around doing nothing.

The daughter's silence dominates the conversation. To fill the vacuum, Bri and Sheila (Elizabeth Garvie, having less fun as the more obviously caring wife) create characters for her, invent responses, play-act the events surrounding her birth and illness, tell sick jokes and goad the audience. On a crowded, sweaty evening in a pub theatre, Owen and Garvie turn domestic despair into a reckless public event. This is no place for sober theatrical conventions. Here are a threadbare marriage and a child who's a 'vegetable'.

There's a proper rage behind this facetiousness that makes Joe Egg a sharply humane piece. Nichols's prickly wit suits his subject: sudden jabs of candour cut across easy sympathies. Friends (John Warnaby and Gabrielle Cowburn) and a grandmother (Pauline Delany) take us through the gamut of reactions, and it's in these collisions between pious and rogue thoughts that the play's energy lies. We don't know what to feel. Which is why, once seen, Joe Egg won't go away. I hope the same is true of this revival.

Confessional plays depend on someone on stage not wanting to hear what the other person has to say. The rest is therapy. There are any number of 'let-me-tell-you' speeches in Ibsen's Ghosts, and the dramatic charge lies in how badly these speeches go down. Katie Mitchell's new production is a fine embodiment of this principle. Vicki Mortimer's spare design, with its opaque conservatory windows, allows Tina MacHugh's lighting to cast a shifting Nordic gloom over Mrs Alving's estate. But this dim, damp world is shot through with glints of fire.

Ibsen may like to spell out the argument and then go back and underline the important bits, but the top-flight cast push through this deliberateness, injecting into each exchange a thrilling precision of character. As Pastor Manders, John Carlisle's creased, aquiline face shifts from geniality to moral rigidity and shame. The plaintive composure of Jane Lapotaire's Mrs Alving dissolves into twisted howls.

But Simon Russell Beale, as the artist son, startles most. With Hockney-blond hair and the slow-moving poise of an Anthony Hopkins, he crumples up on the sofa with ungainly despair. Stabbing at his forehead, he forces on his mother the news that inside his head the worm of syphilis is eating away. Riveting. But everyone involved in this RSC revival deserves praise.

In Translations, the villagers of Ballybeg in 1833 find themselves in the same boat as the people of Britain in 1993: people from over the water are trying to change their lives. Only here it's the British who are in charge.

Brian Friel loves building scenes around arrivals and departures. The play opens in the hedge school, and the old schoolmaster (Norman Rodway) is soon interrupted by the return of his son, Owen (Robert Patterson), now acting as an interpreter for the British. They are here to map the area and change the place names. Owen introduces two officers and, since they speak neither Gaelic nor Latin (odd that, since they're both public-school types), he interprets for them.

The play is about communication, or the lack of it. The assistant schoolmaster (Barry Lynch) doesn't like what's happening and won't speak English to Lieutenant Yolland (James Larkin). This is a tricky device, technically, since in performance the actors have to speak English. But it works superbly when the enthusiastic Yolland falls in love with a local girl (Zara Turner).

Sam Mendes's admirable production switches mood with great deftness. The uncertainties that close the evening lesson give way within seconds to the hot relaxed languor of Yolland and Owen drinking poteen in the August sunshine. But I find it hard to share in the reverence that Friel inspires. It's his virtues that put me off. The themes are so well-apportioned, the implications so considered, the discursive moods so gentle, the humour so benign.

British musicals need an injection of whatever's going and the idea of a steelband musical is a good one. In The Pan Beaters Stephen Landrigan takes the legend of Phaedra and sets it in present-day Trinidad. Theseus, a millionaire businessman (Don Warrington), returns to the island with Phaedra, his rich American wife (Joanna McCallum), to discover that his son Hippolite (Victor Romero Evans) is the island's best pan player. When Theseus leaves, Phaedra wins over Hippolite with a Harley Davidson.

Yes, the pan-beating is fun, but the band spends so long on stage it's hard for the cast to pull any focus. There are no songs, so the story doesn't develop through the music, and the Port of Spain yard has none of the local detail that lit up V S Naipaul's Miguel Street. What we get instead is a shallow mix of ancient and modern.

'Joe Egg': King's Head (071-226 1916). 'Ghosts': Other Place, Stratford (0789 295623). 'Translations': Donmar (071-240 4882). 'Pan Beaters': Greenwich (081-858 7755).

Irving Wardle is on holiday.