Posted: Sun., Jan. 6, 2002, 6:25pm PT
By MATT WOLF | Variety
There's life still in Laurence Boswell's West End revival of "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," recently transferred to the Comedy Theater, and it has arrived courtesy of Eddie Izzard, one of Britain's favorite comedians. Izzard has replaced Clive Owen in the central male role of Bri, father to a spastic daughter in Peter Nichols' largely autobiographical script. (The rest of the cast remains as before.) And what may have been lost in matinee idol appeal has found a compensatory gain in madcap elan: Whereas Owen backed away from the vaudevillian aspects of Nichols' 1967 play, Izzard embraces them head-on, with the result that an ultimately lacerating play is considerably funnier as it moves toward its troubling close.
Best known as one of his country's most successful standups, attired more often than not in a dress, Izzard has headlined West End plays before, starting with David Mamet's "The Cryptogram" and moving on to Julian Barry's play "Lenny." (Both were flops.) "Joe Egg" offers arguably Izzard's best match of role and persona to date, not least because the more knockabout components of Nichols' text can accommodate his improvisatory ease. (To that extent, he's closest to Jim Dale, who took the part in this play's last Broadway revival in 1985.)
Izzard is at his best at the outset, treating the audience as this put-upon Bristol teacher's none-too-obedient class ("You're the losers, not me," he snorts). His standup opening concluded, the actor goes on to strike a real rapport with distaff lead Victoria Hamilton during the sequence of sketches where Bri must comically incarnate the various impediments to their child's recovery (a pediatrician, a cleric) whom the couple have encountered along their long and often mournful way to her current vegetative state.
Lest he be thought to stint on the desolation that underlies Bri's every routine, Izzard's mournful eyes provide an immediate tip-off. While it's both the blessing and the curse of Hamilton's Sheila to insist on "magic" where Bri intuits only ruin and despair, Izzard lets the aud know from the outset that the spousal fun and games for Bri have gone hollow at the core. His hands so many pinwheels, Izzard could lessen the shtick that accompanies his work in act two, which is where Hamilton crowns an already luminous perf with genuinely tremulous grace. But as played by Izzard, Bri seems an overgrown child, after a fashion, in a household that only has room for one: While Sheila can make room for all living creatures, Bri must move on, all of which Izzard communicates while creeping toward the new life that his daughter has so sadly been denied.