Eddie Izzard was just five years old when Peter Nichols's disconcertingly comic A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg made its debut.
But in the intervening decades this black comedy has lost none of its intensity, wit or insight, and seems as contemporary and relevant now as it was 34 years ago,
Then, the very subject matter - the trials of an earnest couple struggling to bring up a severely mentally handicapped child - was taboo. Audiences are more willing to accept such a dark premise for comedy these days, though the play can still generate a certain frisson with such politically incorrect terms as 'spastic' and 'vegetable'.
Izzard plays the unfortunate father Bri, a beleaguered teacher who can only cope with his bleak situation with silly jokes. His wife Sheila happily joins in, though her smiles provide only flimsy cover for an uneasy cocktail of despair, defiance and dreadful self-hate.
It's a subtle and complex character, and one, which the excellent Victoria Hamilton captures perfectly. From her turmoil of emotions comes the lion's share of the play's dramatic impact, bringing out the futile hope at the heart of the piece, without ever relying on mawkish pity.
Izzard plays Bri as a man wracked by bewilderment rather than despair, who has tried to make the best of things, but who is driven to unthinkable extremes of behaviour by the hopeless situation.
For the first half, Izzard can draw on his stand-up roots for this challenging role. He starts alone on stage, addressing the audience as if it were his class in one of several comic monologues - though all a lot tighter than he's used to. Also his character, like the others, occasionally steps out of the action to confide directly to the viewer - very deconstrucionalist.
And the background to the story is played out in a number of sparkling sketches, with Izzard playing an assortment of well-meaning but impotent experts - a GP, a specialist and a vicar - advising Hamilton's disbelieving Sheila. These fizz with witty banter and are laced with a certain amount of improvisation, adding to the comic enjoyment and cementing the fun at the centre of the husband and wife relationship before their life was hit by such tragedy.
Though the humour is never forgotten, things take a more serious turn after the interval when the pair are joined by the well-meaning but useless Freddie, his delightfully snobbish wife Pam - the only character as permanently stuck in the play's Sixties roots as the wonderful period scenery - as well as Bri's genteel, wittering mother, expertly played by Prunella Scales.
Here the intensity steps up, as the morals of joking about such a situation are debated, Bri's actions become increasingly bizarre and the narrative starts to veer between sheer farce and poignant tragedy.
It's here, too, that Izzard gets to flex his acting muscles a little more. Though his character can never hope to compete with Hamilton's brilliantly underplayed maelstrom of emotions, he manages to keep the audience empathy with his realistic portrayal of the increasingly frustrated Bri, who eventually just runs out of options.
By turns, hilarious and uncomfortable, but always absorbing, A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg is rightly considered a modern classic, tackling a bleak subject with humanity, humour and verve.
And, sadly for the world of comedy, it takes Izzard
another step closer towards his acting ambitions.
December 12, 2001