Theatre review: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Liverpool Playhouse

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It’s difficult to see that attitudes to extreme disability have improved much since Peter Nichols first wrote his ground-breaking black comedy inspired by the experience of bringing up his own brain-damaged daughter in the 1960s.

Despite the intervening decades we are still coming to terms with the issue – no matter how much we might have been moved at the triumphant spectacle of the Paralympics last summer.

Disabled people – especially children - are still largely invisible from our lives and as the parent of a child with even the mildest of differences might agree, some of the most hurtful problems they face are coping with other people’s attitudes and the pressures that your child’s limitations might place on one’s own expectations.

And that is not to mention the challenges to a relationship with a co-carer (assuming you are lucky enough to have one). Watching the sad machinations of Sheila and Bri’s unravelling marriage is therefore a deeply painful experience.

Yet this co-production with the Rose Theatre Kingston is raised to even greater heart wrenching heights by the pacey stream of gags flowing from Nichols’ pen whilst also being given a surreal twist by the period-piece DayGlo yellow set against which it is played out.

The language has been deliberately unchanged from a time when the use of the word “spastic” and other casual cruelty was even more commonplace – both among doctors and the non-medical world. But for all the heaviness of its themes the play is propelled by the brilliance of the writing and the cast’s extraordinary performance.

Ralf Little as Bri is a likeable corduroy-clad young teacher at a comprehensive school, grappling with unruly children by day and coping with the crushing domestic routine of his own cruelly damaged daughter by night.

Rebecca Johnson plays his emotionally and physically more astute wife Sheila with commanding authority. Together the two feed off each other to create a class double act that is at its best when they are conjuring comedy from the bleak realities of their child’s disability.

The tensions between them reach breaking point with the late-night arrival of the Flashmanesque Freddie and his dreary wife Pamela, skilfully brought to life by Owen Oakeshott and Sally Tatum who bear reluctant witness to Jessica Bastick-Vines’ gurning, fitting Joe.

The unlikely party is completed with the arrival of Marjorie Yates as Bri’s interfering mum Grace who takes every opportunity to remind one and all that Joe would have made a lovely child – if only she was running about. 

The enduring success of Joe Egg is a truly touching legacy created by a father for a daughter who died aged 11.

 To 27 April and then at Rose Theatre Kingston 30 April - 18 May

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