“The Liverpool Playhouse is a model of what a regional theatre should be,” Tweeted director Stephen Unwin this morning. This has never been more true than with its latest production, his own A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.
The 1960s classic play by Peter Nichols remains a product of its time, yet can provoke and ask questions of its audience that remain relevant today, not just about its main theme of disability, but much more besides. As alpha male businessman Freddie proclaims his world view “as a socialist”, current debates about class and Thatcher’s legacy spring to mind. His wife Pamela’s obsession with appearance pre-dates the tabloid magazine circle of shame.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is the story of suburban couple Bri (Ralf Little) and Sheila (Rebecca Johnson) coping with the profound disability of their daughter Josephine (Jessica Bastick-Vines). They make jokes and he acts the goat, but how much can they really take?
Nichol’s writing and style is a joy, with the two acts contrasting significantly; the first is a two-hander setting up Bri and Shelia’s story, while the second introduces more characters and their takes on the situation. At times, each character breaks the fourth wall and performs monologues straight to the audience, a great device that adds a fantastical element to the production and allows them to say the unsayable.
It is another outstanding Playhouse ensemble. Little’s comic acting brings subtlety as well as absurdity, while Johnson’s unwavering motherly instinct is deeply moving. Both are perfectly cast. Marjorie Yates’s turn as Bri’s overbearing mother is done with great comic timing, and Sally Tatum and Owen Oakeshott as outsiders Freddie and Pamela bring a little Abigail’s Party-style British farce to proceedings.
Bri is eventually forced to make a decision that will tear the family apart. The final scene is tense and devastating. What is the worst thing he could possibly do? You might be surprised.
Although fuss has been made of the 60s terminology used throughout the play and its references to “spastics”, this is arguably not as uncomfortable as it has been made out to be in some quarters. The language is real and honest. It’s arguable the attitude towards Sheila’s past before marriage – even to the extent she worried Jo’s disability was punishment for her promiscuity – is more interesting.
Going back to Unwin’s original quote, at its best this play leaves its audience breathless with tension and emotion. It makes the viewer think and ask questions, have excited discussions and debate. It makes people care and it is inspiring; it could even have a real lasting impact on the way people think and see the world. And that is certainly what regional theatre should be.