Art & Lit

A cracking script: Preview of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

a-day-in-the-death-of-joe-egg_4749Not often do we hear a girl with severe disabilities being called a “vegetable”, “crackpot” or a “spastic” by her doctor or her own father. We do, in this 1967 play by Peter Nichols, which is a novelty to be welcomed. Disability and illness are common fodder for a very banal breed of art, which may be dubbed, in essence, onanistic art: the audience enters a room, Kleenex in pocket, sits through prognosis, diagnosis, and death (presented with obsessive realism: in a film the camera may shy away from lovers in bed; how its gaze moves not an inch when a girl has a seizure!), sheds some tears, and leaves. We see what is coming, we get it, we forget about it until the next time.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg escapes this category. Brian (Sam Ward) and Sheila (Claudia Hill) must look after their daughter Joe (Lucy Delaney). She suffers from cerebral palsy. A bleak subject, but Nichols’s take is wholly original. Over the sombre and the sober, he chooses wild, intoxicated comedy. In a sequence of vaudeville acts, the couple recalls Joe’s birth, her first symptoms, and their bungling GP. Brian brims with grins and gaminerie, swerving and vrooming Joe’s wheelchair like a motorcar. It is like a requiem with tap dancers and castanets.

We are to understand, of course, that the farce only hides their grief. This is shown well by Sam Ward. Resembling a sprightly cane with a pair of sparkling beads on the handle, Ward performs with lunatic brio, but his eyes wander and his gestures are wooden. His comedy feels vigorous but distant, at once heartily full- and pathetically half-hearted; indeed, he would make an excellent Feste.

Claudia Hill’s talent lies in placing every uttered phrase in inverted commas, starving her words of all meaning. Hollowly, she calls Joe “poor love”, surely what ought to have been one of the most affecting epithets of the evening. Her delivery of the line “It really makes me boil” is as emptily emphasised as a schoolboy’s made-up excuse for a lost textbook. She would thrive, perhaps, in Ionesco. Here, however, her flatness achieves little.

All in all, the production is pure: it shows few signs of directorial intervention or fine-tuning. It does the job of staging the play, but not much otherwise.

 

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg opens 7.30pm on the 19th of February (Tuesday of 6th Week, HT’13) in the Burton Taylor Studio, and up to and including the 23rd.

PHOTO/Tomas Elliott

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Mys-Alex

    19th February 2013 at 23:57

    “It does the job of staging the play, but not much otherwise.”
    Having seen the full performance this evening, I could not disagree more with this statement. Having read this play thoroughly in the past, unable to imagine how it could be transformed into something enjoyable, the opening night astounded me. The cliché of “making the script come alive” finds its true referent. And as Mr Kim mentions in passing (but fails to give proper emphasis to) this play remains in the mind’s eye well after its curtain: my conscience confused, my nerves rattled.

    Not often have I experienced a performance which is at every point entertaining whilst filling me with troubling self-directed questions. Like art should, with each turn of the model in my hands, new meanings and underlying character relations become evident and this is without beginning to consider the meta-theatrical brain-frickery which will surely keep me from sleep.

    Sam Ward is immediately interesting and darkly funny, commanding the audience’s attention with an apparent effortlessness. The relentless pace, however, renders there little room for laughter as we are plummeted into the hot cinders of a masterfully directed crucible. His many characters are all individuals and this means that his dipping in and out of fantasy is extremely gripping, throwing the audience from one world to the next. Special mention must be given to his opening monologue which begins the performance with startling finesse. With an ability to convey humour and desperation in the same syllable, Ward is a treat to watch throughout.

    Claudia Hill is an impressive personification of worry, maternity and fear. Her performance in the first Act complements Ward’s mania, both of them working skilfully, leading the audience’s imagination through an indistinguishable jungle of stereotypes and play-reality. One of Hill’s monologues was particularly outstanding, her expression capturing the grief of a parent whose child will forever be ostracised. She haunted the theatre from that moment on, the audience with no choice but to feel her burden. Her role is arguably more important that Ward’s, vital for the play reaching its emotional climax and this is achieved with beautiful subtlety.

    The rest of the cast produced no difference in standard, able to truly pull off this piece.

    I would question whether Mr Kim has become lost in fantasy with his review, perhaps taking the surreal elements of the play too whole-heartedly into his life and work. Personally, I cannot wait to see it again.

  2. Hyunjip Kim

    20th February 2013 at 18:20

    Thank you for your comments. Let me, quite sincerely, tell you that I can only envy you for enjoying what I instinctively find mediocre. That is to your benefit and my loss. But may I urge you, with Tynan, to consider this: what counts in theatre criticism is not whether a critic’s opinion is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but how well and truly it is expressed. When we disagree about our taste in coffee, we cannot expect to agree on our views on drama. I have as faithfully as I can set down in writing my state of mind after watching this production, and with good style, I hope. If you have a clear impression of my beliefs, and if you found the article a pleasure to read, then I am contented.
    In my place, Housman might have said: ‘there is a savage nobility about your firm reliance on your own bad taste.’ But of course I do not share that view.

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