Now On A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
By Peter Nichols

Starring Eddie Izzard, Victoria Hamilton and Prunella Scales

Comedy Theatre, Panton St, London SW1
Box office 020 7369 1731

Perfs:Mon-Sat 7.30pm, Thu & Sat: 2.30pm

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A comedy about a couple living with their severely disabled child may sound tasteless, even when classified as a black comedy, but in Peter Nichols' 1967 play, the comedy, while sometimes very black indeed, is far from tasteless, and the emotional impact of the play, especially in the second half, cannot be underestimated.

The play is unusual in construction. The first act opens with Bri (Izzard) apparently addressing the audience from the stage apron. It becomes obvious that he is in fact teaching a class of unruly children. A revolving set is then revealed, with a domestic house scene spinning in to view, and the play continues with the jokey interplay between Bri and his wife Sheila (Hamilton). However, half way through the act, the set revolves again, to give an almost blank back wall of the set, and Bri and Sheila take it in turns to address the audience, explaining the birth of their daughter, Joe, and wise-cracking about their situation. They both assume characters such as doctors and vicars, and both acknowledge the presence of the audience. It even becomes hard to tell what is scripted and what is improvised, such is the comic brilliance of both actors. The second half then carries on where the play earlier in the first half left off, as friends Freddie and Pam, and then Bri's mother Grace (Scales) arrive.

The play traces the emotional impact that the presence of the almost mute and barely aware Joe has on their lives. Strains become pronounced, not helped by the arrival of the outsiders in the house, and while there is a lot of comedy at Joe's expense (especially when her parents project characters on to her) her disability is never laughed at - it is the normalcy of her presence in their lives that is the source of comedy.

Izzard and Hamilton are both superb - Izzard often seems to be playing himself, with his slightly manic mannerisms and speech patterns, but Hamilton is a study in the mannered ways of someone trying to hold together some semblance of a normal life against increasingly emotional odds. Their speeches to the audience (which are also echoed by the characters, including Joe) never seem un-natural, or to break the flow of the play. Prunella Scales, in what is little more than a cameo, delivers her slightly batty old-woman to perfection, uttering damning one-liners with an ease that is impressive.

Nichol's play may be something of an A-level syllabus classic, but in the 34 years since it was written, despite some changes in language ('Spastic' is hardly ver heard now) and the associated change in 'political correctness', still packs quite an emotional punch. The play takes an unexpectedly dark turn at the end, but is still utterly believable, and leaves you questioning your own attitudes to som very difficult ethical questions. A play that can make you both laugh and think is an increasingly rare thing. Highly recommended.

by Steve Bustin for

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