Coping mechanisms, we all have them. Smoking, drinking, candle-lit baths. Bri, the primary player in A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg takes refuge from his deadbeat comprehensive school job and humdrum domestic existence in humour. Played by Ralf Little, Bri is somewhat world-weary, something of an attention-seeker and vaguely randy. He’s classic farce material and the opening scenes of the play set us up for a comedy of manners – before we casually learn that Bri and his wife care for their profoundly disabled daughter, Joe.
The tragedy of this situation is never demonstrative – there are no angry soliloquies or angst-ridden shouting matches here; just the quiet, daily frustrations and worries that such a role requires of care-givers. While the situation has driven a wedge between husband and wife, they are still fond of one another and simply ‘get on’ with the everyday mundanities of work, care and play.
We get to see the birth of Joe and the subsequent quest for answers – Bri and Sheila break the fourth wall and stage little sketches for the audience’s benefit, Bri enacting the roles of the GP, Paediatrician and Priest as she seeks a cure for her daughter. Little is superb here, segueing from one character to another, revelling in the dark humour of God’s (represented by a giant Pythonesque finger crashing through the ceiling and portrayed as a manic depressive rugby player) apparent indifference to the unfortunate, or acting as a German doctor telling Sheila that Joe will grow up to be a ‘wegetable’.
But for all of Bri’s coping mechanisms he’s reached the end of his tether – and the audience has walked into the play to find him at breaking point, with ramifications that are both hilarious and tragic, frequently at the same time. The audience is often shocked at the casual bluntness on display, which seems particularly startling given that the play debuted in 1967. One suspects that this could all go horribly wrong if director or actors misjudge it; as so often at the Playhouse, we’re in safe hands.
Sheila swings between laughter and tears in the way that people often do in life – and her obstinacy over Joe’s care and optimism for her improvement are wholly believable and sympathetic.
Shameless’ Marjorie Yates has a waspish and thoroughly enjoyable turn as Bri’s mother; she’s the classic mother-in-law, outwardly helpful but insidiously manipulative. Meanwhile Owen Oakeshott and Sally Tatum as Freddie and Pamela are two classic sitcom grotesques; the former a well-meaning and well-to-do berk, the latter a squeamish snob.
Little is very strong as Bri – a man who has never quite grown up and, despite coping as best he can with the cards life has dealt him, gives a permanent impression of being a rabbit in the headlights. Despite the laughs, there’s always a default position of appearing rather frayed, worn out.
…Joe Egg often anticipates the 70s social farces of Ayckbourn, Cooney and Nobbs – there’s a real feeling too of the sitcoms of Edmunds and Larvey too, only instead of chasing chickens or topless lovelies, Bri is hustling his profoundly disabled daughter around the angular set in his efforts to euthanise her.
Realisations like this give the play an uncomfortable power, but they can also be jarring. Tonally the production never quite leaves the same mood of light comedy but structurally, in its course, there’s a classic two-hander, multiple fourth-wall monologues, fantasy scenes, ensemble work, broad farce and even a few moments when Little and Johnson corpse and try to crack each other up.
Perhaps in this way the audience can connect better with the sometimes-grim realities of caring for someone while maintaining that false bonhomie; creating a protective veneer of humour, slapstick, imitation and fiction.
This production has lots of humour and is played wonderfully by its ensemble cast – that it is essentially played for laughs and is very funny, despite its subject matter and desperate situations, is sometimes discombobulating, but within that apparent contradiction between tone and content is something that rings very true about human strengths and frailties.
A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg leaves a lingering impression of great hope, despair and everything in between. That it is able to do so while raising genuine laughs is a testament to the strength of the material and this new production.
A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg
Until 27 April
We’ve teamed up with the Playhouse to offer a pair of tickets to A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg during its Liverpool run. Just send the answer to the following question, along with your name and contact details, to email@example.com:
In what year was A Day In The Death of Joe Egg first performed?
Please note: Tickets to be used between the 15-20 April
Pics: Simon Annand