It’s easy to see why the late Peter Nichols’ play was considered ground-breaking in 1967. It confronts, with humour and honesty, the emotional consequences of parenting a profoundly disabled child, and plays around nimbly with form while doing so.
Drawing on his own personal experience – Nichols’ daughter was disabled and died at the age of 11 – it is a bold play, rejecting sentimentality at every turn. Some scenes are wrenching, others provocative. Its frankness still feels startling, its psychological acuity and willingness to transgress impressive and, even though it’s rooted in its time, particularly in regard to the language it uses, it remains resonant.
In Simon Evans’ incongruously glossy revival, Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner play Bri and Sheila, parents to Josephine, their 15-year-old daughter with multiple disabilities who they call Joe Egg; neither verbal nor mobile, she is subject to endless fits.
Nichols acutely captures the methods both have developed for coping. School-teacher Bri opts for the “useful anaesthetic” of the sick joke. Sheila surrounds herself with small animals, a mini-menagerie. Together, they construct personas for Joe, filling in the blanks.
Stephens embraces the Vaudevillian nature of Nichols’ play, addressing the audience directly, often as if they were pupils in his class. He uses lots of exaggerated comedy voices, which are funny at first, but become less so when used to depict the various doctors who dismissed and patronised Sheila and ignored her concerns about her seriously ill child. These scenes still have the power to make you rage. Underneath this, Stephens displays a sense of despair and desperation, of a man only just clinging on. Skinner is more contained as Sheila; one feels she has spent so long caring for her husband as well as her daughter that she has forgotten how to put her own needs first.
Joe is played by Storme Toolis, the first disabled actor to play the part in the West End. This helps to rebalance things, particularly in the brief scene when Joe is given a voice.
But, despite one utterly heart-rending moment in which Sheila describes an incident when, as a baby, Joe exhibited a degree of will – a small assertion of the self – only for this too to disappear, Evans’ production feels too comfy and clean.
It’s handsome, certainly. Peter McKintosh’s rotating set is stuffed full of period-appropriate details, but the way the lighting cues signal emotional shifts feels heavy-handed. The anguish in the writing doesn’t always come across; the secondary characters are played very broadly. Evans is better with the terrible farce of the play’s later scenes, in which Bri is tempted to allow Joe’s life to end – to free her, or perhaps more accurately, to free him – but it still feels tame.
Though things pick up in the second half, the production never comes close to replicating the rawness and daring – the shit and the spit – of the play itself.