‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ by Peter Nicolls is arguably one of the most controversial plays about disability of the last 50 years. Cate Jacobs responds after a performance at The Liverpool Playhouse on 27 April.
Written and set in the 1960’s you would be forgiven for thinking that ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg,’ is a play of its time, but I wonder….
Joe Egg is an exploration of an ordinary family with a disabled child. Joe has cerebral palsy and has frequent severe epileptic fits. We are given glimpses of the many dynamics and undercurrents that are gradually eroding the relationship of Bri and Sheila, as they struggle to cope day to day, with a smile on their face, a pain in their hearts and an ever growing rift between them.
Ralf Little plays the part of the father, Bri who is a teacher. From the moment he comes on stage he has the audience in the palm of his hand as he addresses us with every cliché from our classroom days, starting with ‘Hands on head! Eyes front!’ he is hilarious and when he’s joined by Rebecca Johnson, who plays the mother Sheila, there is an undeniable chemistry as they bounce off each other and off the script into a humorous improvised banter that involves members of the audience!
And so they have us on side and where ever they take us for the rest of the play, they are assured of our sympathy. It is hard to judge the father who beneath his endless jokes and buoyancy, is drowning in his own unmet needs and desperation. So when he talks about euthanasia and murdering his daughter, no one on stage takes him seriously, but the audience is left with some uncomfortable questions: ‘How would I feel or cope in his shoes?’
His underlying desperation is juxtaposed by the over cheerful and optimistic Sheila, who scoops up every tiny scrap of hope for her daughter, and the two of them walk the tightrope in between. Which unsurprisingly snaps at the end of the play, when Bri can’t take any more. Their dialogue begs the question: ‘Exactly how do you balance the needs of a profoundly disabled child, with the needs of a relationship?’
Whenever Joe, played by Jessica Bastick-Vines, is on stage she is powerfully present. Jessica plays this role with great sensitivity and truthfulness and creates a character that is authentic, so that when she skips into Sheila’s fantasy of having a ‘normal’ child, Joe is totally plausible and we enter the mother’s unattainable dreams with her for a moment.
The absence of Joe’s voice or thoughts was something that was hotly debated in the post show discussion, where members of the panel and the audience felt strongly that there was a need to give Joe a voice in some way. There was a passionate feeling that she deserved a voice after all the fight and struggle of attaining disability rights and equal opportunities through the DDA - that we wanted to know what she thought and felt. We didn’t want her to be as silent as a parsnip! But there was something equally as powerful in her silence - perhaps it resonated with the reality that we don’t so much have a voice as disabled people, but lip service. That we still have to scream loud and long to be heard and seen as equals in society?
There was also discussion about the casting of Joe Egg and the representation of disabled people in drama. Jessica had done thorough research into the role and was a very credible Joe but I’m left wondering is it enough or could Joe have been played by someone with cerebral palsy and the able-bodied fantasy Joe played by a look-alike, with Joe still on stage. Sometimes inclusion and equal opportunities requires some creative thinking outside the box!
The play was superbly directed by Stephen Unwin, who infused the overall performance with a sympathy, tenderness and honesty that comes from his own personal experience of raising a son with profound, multiple learning difficulties.
Joe Egg is brilliantly written, it is both funny and uncomfortable as a lot of the language in the play is no longer considered PC. It was a brave decision not to change it; hearing the word ‘spastic’ used liberally both makes you cringe and creates a comfortable feeling of ‘We’re not like that now! How times have moved on!’ But have they?
The characters in the play all cleverly push stereotypical attitudes towards disability to the point of caricature and therein lies the humour of the piece, and the audience can silently congratulate itself because ‘We’re not like that now!’ Or are we?
Sally Tatum, plays Pamela, with all the sugary distaste and fear of that which is not perfect and leaves us squirming in our seats, as she wafts about stage trying desperately to find an excuse to leave whilst simultaneously appearing sympathetic - how many people like that have you met?
Owen Oakenshott plays a great Freddie, a bumbling middle class problem solver with a smattering of do gooder thrown in for good measure! He searches for practical solutions, all the time vigorously sweeping the real issues under the carpet - sound familiar?
But it’s Grace, played by Marjorie Yates, that bustles in with her size 9’s, knitted cardigans and denial, that subtly tries to apportion the blame for Joe’s condition onto her daughter-in-law Sheila - who is already convinced that she is both guilty and responsible for Joe’s condition and there it is, the elephant in the room - who is to blame?
The need of a scapegoat is the real disability of modern society. It’s always got to be somebody else’s fault or responsibility. Pass the buck and look away!
The final scene where Joe is alone centre stage in a pool of light, doesn’t allow you to look away. It demands to know who will look after this child? And in the current climate of benefit and service cuts, I’m left wondering - Who indeed?
The Everyman & Playhouse Theatres in Liverpool approached DaDaFest to lead a post show discussion on ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’.
The production comes to The Rose Theatre in Kingston, Surrey from Tuesday 30th April - Saturday 18th May.