Even after 44 years, Peter Nichols’ script still sparkles with its cutting observations of social unease around disability, and its sharp satire of simplistic solutions to impossible situations. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, part knockabout comedy, part serious study of the impact of a badly disabled child on a couple, refuses the pieties of both 1960s’ incomprehension and contemporary political correctness.
Although Miriam Margolyes lights up the stage as the aging, manipulative mother-in-law, switching easily between addressing the audiences and diving back into the drama, Philip Breen’s direction allows the whole cast a chance to shine. While they are more comfortable acting out the domestic tragedy than playing the stand-up, slap-stick routines of the first act, Miles Jupp (Bri) and Sarah Tansey (Sheila) emphasise the bitter battles of the bedroom, making their disabled child a symbol of their own neediness and immaturity.
Jupp does not shy away from Bri’s nasty selfishness, even as he captures his intelligent good humour. The arrival of socialist industrialist Freddie (Joseph Chance) and his wife Pam - Olivia Darnley almost makes her savage snobbery sympathetic - highlights the play’s historical origins: while Chance is all bluster and misplaced enthusiasm, they represent a class now replaced, while standing for an innocent, yet useless, positivity.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is brutal, funny and provocative. The actors are challenged to jump across genres, picturing a reality bounded by a child’s absolute dependence, but made into a hell by their own personal failures.