When Ralf Little takes to the stage in the opening moments of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, he is in full school-teacher mode. Addressing the audience as if we are the kids in his classroom, he demands that we put our hands on our heads and face front. He’s persistent, making everybody do it, pointing out those failing to join in and insisting that he will not move on until we cooperate: ‘It’s your own time you’re wasting.’ The audience start tittering but many cooperate. This is the first bit of fourth wall-breaking interaction in the production, but it’s far from the last.
Peter Nichols’s 1967 play about a married couple’s struggle to raise their severely disabled daughter broke new ground when it premiered at the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow forty-six years ago, not least for its unwillingness to treat the subject in a worthy or po-faced way because of its incumbent heartache. Instead, for much of the first half he borrows some of the traditions of the music hall, though in the second half it becomes a more traditional comedy of manners, playing with form, brimming with wit. Much of the play’s humour has stood aged well though it’s unfortunate that the desperate plight of the characters has not been consigned to history, far from it.
Nichols based the play on his own experiences of raising his severely disabled daughter, and its pitch black humour has an air of pain running beneath it; director Stephen Unwin has a son with multiple learning difficulties so is also coming at the material from a place of experience. Both the play and this revival feel like labours of love, treating the subject with sensitivity and with real insight, not only into the specific difficulties of bringing up a disabled child, but the wider phenomenon of using humour to cope with the most impossible situations. Bri and Sheila are able to bear their beloved daughter’s stasis and her silence only through making up personalities and voices for her; this process manages to be very funny and incredibly upsetting all at once.
As Sheila, Rebecca Johnson is, at several points in the production, almost unbearably moving, though there is something strangely cold and removed about her performance. This distance worked beautifully in The Vortex, also at the Rose, but can feel a little chilly here. Ralf Little, on the other hand, is full of life and laughter and despair as Bri, bounding winningly from one emotional state to the next. His timing is spot on throughout, and if he struggles here and there in the play’s earliest serious moments, he comes into his own in the play’s second half.
In Nichols’ play much is made of the cruelty of chance, the hand of God – so much so that in Simon Higlett’s set, a gigantic finger points down at them from the ceiling, Monty Python-style. It’s not exactly subtle, and though it works well as a backdrop to the first half, all the bright colours and misshapen doors sit a little uncomfortably in the more naturalistic second part. While the play clearly owes a debt to the music hall tradition, the direction and performances of Unwin’s production at times seem more in keeping with live sketch comedy, a tonal shift which doesn’t always sit well. But this is of small concern in what is in the main an engaging production of a play that is still both entertaining and deeply moving, not to mention as socially relevant now as it once was.