Preview: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Cherwell’s verdict: “A nuanced comedy of poignant tragedy”

“What are you telling them?”, asks Brian, as he walks in on his wife Sheila unburdening herself to us about the difficulties of living with a husband who is jealous of her every affection – including that for their child, Joe, who suffers from cerebral palsy. A Day in the Life of Joe Egg is chock-a-block with disorientating moments such as these, when we become conscious of ourselves as an audience looking in on a family as they play out their lives before us.

In order to entertain themselves and their daughter, labelled a “wegetable” by the camp, hyperactive doctor at the Children’s Hospital in an uncomfortably hilarious moment, Sheila and Brian construct plays out of their own lives; Brian brilliantly taking on the roles of the numerous figures that Shelia came into contact with as she sought explanations for her child’s crippling illness. Brian, played by Sam Ward, is a teacher by profession: the play opens with a disconcerting exploitation of the audience as we take on the role of his unruly class. In amongst the genuine anger and lack of control the comic is never far away; Brian tells his wife that he no longer hates a particular child in his class, but “I just stare at him and wonder if he’s a creature of my own humanity”.  

And then we move into the domestic scene of the family home. The intimate yet fragile relationship between husband and wife is reproduced perfectly as lines of dialogue fly off one another, and Brian visibly slips into a child-like role of a sex-charged, nagging, unperceptive young man, just like those he left behind in the class room. Brian’s ever-present stream of lustful thoughts continue, even when the child, Joe, finally makes an entry. Lucy Delaney pulls off the difficult part in a way which is poignant, convincing and avoids sentimentality. Unable to speak, her parents form a three-way conversation around her, addressing each other as “mum” and “dad” as though they alternately take on the role of their daughter. Left alone with Joe as his wife changes upstairs, Brian’s monologue to his child drifts into self-involved fantasy about the noise coming from above – “That’s mummy upstairs… she’s probably undressing…. naked”.

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Peter Nichols’ play is certainly a tough one to pull off, but this small cast have undoubtedly caught all the nuances of the sharp, beautifully crafted script: anticipate a highly engaging, emotional, and at times hilarious evening.