Not 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.