It's hard to credit, but Peter Nichols's wonderful A Day in the Death of Joe Egg hasn't had a West End outing since it opened, to the sound of shattering taboos and shocked laughter, at the Comedy Theatre in 1967. Nor, in all that time, has the National had the sense to do itself and us a favour by mounting this classic in the Cottesloe, a venue for which it would be ideal. So it's a great pleasure to welcome Laurence Boswell's prickly, zestful revival, which proves that Joe Egg is that rare bird – a groundbreaking work that retains an undiminished capacity to disconcert.
Nichols's semi-autobiographical tragicomedy takes the most potentially depressing of subjects – a marriage under strain because of a severely brain-damaged child – and blasts away all the hushed solemnity, sentimentality, euphemism and false dignity that might have afflicted its dramatic treatment. There's just no shelter from Nichols's emotional honesty, but that's what makes it exhilarating as well as gut-wrenching.
Joe Egg has intriguing affinities with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But whereas an imaginary child keeps Albee's married couple in vibrant, games-playing disrepair, here it's an all-too-real and chronically handicapped girl who both binds and divides her parents as they weave fantasies around her and indulge in well-rehearsed knockabout routines that re-examine the mystery of why this fate has befallen them. Launching into energetic impersonations of bone-headed doctors and trendy vicars, Clive Owen's excellent Bri lets you see how this manic vaudeville is the flipside of desperation.
There are splendid moments in these sketches when Bri and Sheila (a wonderfully open and moving Victoria Hamilton) seem to catch one another off-guard by some new spontaneous variation, and for a split second, as they nearly corpse, you witness the deep intimacy of their shared plight. But when Hamilton has the audience to herself and confides a determined faith in Joe Egg's capacity for improvement, you sense the loneliness and aching need for adult contact of a woman who has to cope with two overgrown babies, one of them Bri.
With the arrival in the second act of the couple's smugly do-gooding friend Freddie (John Warnaby), his squeamish, patronising wife Pam (Robin Weaver) and Bri's possessive, infantilising mother Grace (Prunella Scales), the play presents the gamut of reactions to the handicapped girl. These range from Grace's defensively soft-focus "Wouldn't she have been lovely if she had been running about" to Pam's firm belief that such eyesores should be put to sleep ("If I say gas chambers that makes it sound horrid"). It's a mark of the play's refusal to settle for easy them-and-us sympathy that it can allow even a caricature such as Freddie to voice sentiments that give you pause, as when he asks whether the couple's approach to their predicament is dangerous: "May I say my piece about these jokes? They've obviously helped you see it through. A useful anaesthetic. But. Isn't there a point where the jokes start using you?" And, as this clearsighted masterwork shows, anaesthetic leaves the intractable problems unchanged.
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