Playwright Peter Nichols died last month, aged 92. He’ll be remembered for many things, but chiefly for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, his semi-autobiographical 1967 work about a married couple and their profoundly disabled daughter, currently being revived by Simon Evans at Trafalgar Studios.
The play was considered controversial on its original opening in Glasgow, thanks to its caustic combination of emotional honesty and dark humour, but that didn’t stop it transferring from Scotland to the West End, and then to Broadway, where it picked up a Tony nomination for best play. It’s been revived countless times since – the last major London staging, in 2002, starred Clive Owen and Victoria Hamilton.
Evans’ production is similarly starry. Running until late November, it sees Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner play husband and wife Bri and Sheila, Patricia Hodge cameos as Bri’s mother, and Storme Toolis take on the role of Bri and Sheila’s daughter Josephine. It’s the first time the character, who suffers from cerebral palsy, has been played by a similarly disabled actor in the West End.
But does Nichols’ boundary-pushing play prove too much for contemporary critics? Does Evans’ staging succeed in capturing its caustic cocktail of comedy and tragedy? Do Stephens, Skinner and Storme supply satisfactory performances? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is partly based on Nichols’ own life. He had a disabled daughter himself, Abigail, who died at the age of 11. Does the semi-autobiographical play still stand the test of time?
Most critics think it does. It’s “heartbreaking and savagely funny” according to Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★★), “shatteringly personal” and “deeply involving” according to Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre ★★★★), and “brimful of humanity, but without an ounce of sentimentality” according to John Nathan (Metro ★★★★).
“It’s a bold play, rejecting sentimentality at every turn,” says Natasha Tripney (The Stage ★★★). “Some scenes are wrenching, others provocative. Its frankness still feels startling, its psychological acuity and willingness to transgress is impressive and, even though it’s rooted in its time, particularly in regard to the language it uses, it remains resonant.”
“Nichols was a brilliant playwright,” writes Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk ★★★★★). “Here he uses a whole array of theatrical devices – from vaudeville routines to direct address to the audience – to tell the story and give us insights into each character’s psyche.” It is, he concludes, a “masterpiece”.
Not everyone agrees, though. For Dominic Maxwell (Times ★★★) this “semi-autobiographical mixture of sitcom, psychodrama and vaudeville” can’t disguise “a sluggishness in its storytelling”. “It’s a striking, important piece of work, but it no longer has quite the impact you suspect it once had,” he finishes.
Most critics concur with Michael Billington (Guardian ★★★★) though. The play “still possesses a rare truth and humanity”.
Director Simon Evans has had an eclectic career so far, helming three shows at Found111 in 2016, before taking the reins of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Donmar Warehouse and Killer Joe at Trafalgar Studios, alongside the magic shows he performs with fellow director David Aula. This latest production of his divides the critics.
Some think he gets it just right. His staging is “pin-sharp” according to Curtis, “bleakly moving” according to Claire Allfree (Telegraph ★★★★), and “terrific” according to Sierz, finding “a perfect balance between tragic desperation and uneasy laughter”.
Others, though, aren’t so sure. For Maxwell, the whole thing “can’t entirely escape the sense of being a period piece”, for Rosemary Waugh (TimeOut ★★★), Evans’ production is “oddly unsatisfying”, and for Tripney it’s “incongruously glossy”.
“Evans production feels to comfy and clean,” she continues. “The production never comes close to replicating the rawness and daring – the shit and the spit – of the play itself.”
“Ultimately it is a question of balancing tragedy and hilarity,” assesses Oliver Ainley (WhatsOnStage ★★★), and “it never feels like one that is properly struck”.
There’s no shortage of star power on display in Evans’ show, though. Stephens and Skinner have stacks of stage and screen credits between them, and they’re joined on stage by Olivier Award-winner Hodge.
Crucial to the casting, though, is Toolis – the first disabled actor to take on the title role in the West End. She’s “hearteningly expressive” according to Sierz, “terrific” according to Maxwell, and “affecting” according to Nathan.
Stephens, familiar from screen roles in Die Another Day and Lost in Space, and from his last stage role in Oslo two years ago, is largely praised for his performance as relentlessly joking dad Bri. He supplies “a bravura turn” according to Maxwell, while Waugh calls his Bri “a goofy man-child with an uncomfortably tense edge” and Curtis lauds him for showing the “fear beneath Bri’s showy bravado”.
“It’s a star role and Stephens embraces it with evident joy and a delightful palette of facial grimaces, physical comedy and vocal flutes,” writes Sierz, while Tripney admires how he “displays a sense of despair and desperation” underneath his “exaggerated comedy accents”.
Skinner, known for her screen role in BBC sitcom Outnumbered, plus numerous stage credits – including an Olivier-nominated part in The Glass Menagerie in 1996 – is similarly showered in praise for her performance as Sheila.
She’s on “tender, heartbreaking form” for Shenton, while for Curtis, she “shines, making a saintly character magnetic and witty”. Her scenes with Stephens, says Billington, are “painfully good”.
Most critics concur that Peter Nichols’ play is still up to scratch, that its groundbreaking combination of black humour and searing honesty about living with a disabled daughter retains its resonance over half a century on from its premiere. They’re less sure about Simon Evans’ staging, though the cast are cracking, not everyone is entirely sure that Evans fully does justice to the power of the play.
A range of reviews, with star ratings stretching from three to four to five, suggest this show splits opinion.