A cracking Joe Egg with Eddie Izzard
 Charles Spencer reviews A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at the Comedy Theatre

thanks Sarah for the picTHIS has been a glorious week for Peter Nichols fans. On Monday, Privates on Parade opened at the Donmar Warehouse and now A Day in the Death of Joe Egg has transferred to the larger Comedy Theatre. With Eddie Izzard replacing Clive Owen as the father of the handicapped child, it seems even better the second time around.

Izzard, best known as an often inspired stand-up comedian, is modest about his acting abilities. His joky three-line biography in the programme informs us that he has spent the past 15 years playing Trebonius in Julius Caesar at the Southend Playhouse. In fact he has alternated comedy with several fine, straight acting appearances, including Edward II, a biodrama about Lenny Bruce and a startling, starring performance in David Mamet's The Cryptogram. There is no doubt though that with Joe Egg he has earned his acting laurels.

The role of Brian might have been written for him. Nichols's daringly experimental play, which constantly breaches the "fourth wall" between actors and audience, draws heavily on the tradition of stand-up and vaudeville, with Bri initially addressing the audience as if we were a class of unruly schoolchildren. Later he and his wife, Sheila (Victoria Hamilton), act out a series of comic sketches showing the couple's dealings with the medical profession and the local clergy when they discovered something was desperately wrong with their child.

Izzard is absolutely in his element here. From his opening spot as the teacher, to which he brings some distinctively Izzardian flourishes undreamt of by the dramatist, you know you are in a safe pair of hands. With Owen there was the faintest hint of embarrassment about the comedy routines, but Izzard is blissfully funny as he impersonates a preposterously vague and complacent GP, a criminally insensitive Germanic paediatrician ("your child is a wegatable") and a swingingly trendy C of E vicar. As a result the jokes now seem every bit as important as the pain in this remarkably courageous play which was closely based on Nichols's own experience as the father of a severely disabled child.

Yet there is depth here as well as gags. Despite his motormouthed wisecracking and randy groping of his wife, Bri at one stage confides in the audience that he is merely going through the motions, that he has become "a shell or something". In his moments of corrosive despair, Izzard often put me in mind of Olivier's Archie Rice in The Entertainer.

There is something similarly dead behind the eyes, an overwhelming hopelessness that can only be kept at bay by sick and desperate jokes.

But Izzard's smashing performance never hijacks Laurence Boswell's production and turns it into a one man show. Victoria Hamilton's lovely performance as the fiercely loving Sheila, one of the most generous and heartfelt tributes a dramatist can ever have paid to his wife, is the most moving I have seen on stage all year. She is constantly caught between laughter and tears and her persistence in hope, and the unconditional love she shows for her totally unresponsive child, cut at the heart like a knife.

Prunella Scales offers a lethal cameo as Bri's mother, apparently concerned but actually deviously manipulative, a woman whose suffocating love has turned her son into a self-centred mummy's boy. There is outstanding work, too, from John Warnaby as a do-gooding friend whose absurdity - "I'm sorry, I tend to raise my voice when I'm helping people" - doesn't entirely conceal his clumsy decency, while Robin Weaver (as his wife) devastatingly nails the squeamishness many of us secretly feel in the face of cruel disability. This is a terrific production of an unmistakably great play.

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