Theatre Review: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Rating: 4

By Richard Barber

Over 50 years since this play’s premiere at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, a new production hits the West End. The only sadness, the subject matter apart, is that playwright Peter Nichols died last month aged 92 and wasn’t around to see it. He’d have been pleased and impressed.

Teacher Bri (Toby Stephens) and Sheila (Claire Skinner) have a profoundly disabled teenage daughter. He deals with the daily demands of her condition by retreating into funny voices and a series of invented sketches. She deals with it by indulging her husband, at one stage observing that it’s like having two babies under one roof, but never once wavering in her love and devotion for her daughter.

The humour, then, is black and might easily misfire in the wrong hands. But from the off the audience is pulled by the scruff of its neck as Stephens jumps off the raised stage and pitches us straight into his unruly classroom in a secondary sink school in Bristol. We must put our hands on our heads, he commands, and make not one sound for a full minute, otherwise we won’t be allowed home.

It is a bravura performance which doesn’t let up all evening, humorous and heartbreaking by turn. He is matched all the way by Skinner’s perhaps more difficult task of having to play with a straight bat. The two are well cast: you immediately buy into their being a long-standing married couple fire-fighting their daughter’s sporadic fits. It is helped that Joe is played by Storme Toolis, who is disabled. To have cast an able-bodied actress in the role would have been insulting.

Under Simon Evans’s nimble direction, the tempo changes in the frenetic second half with the arrival of a couple of friends of Sheila’s and Bri’s fusspot of a mother (a gem of a performance from Patricia Hodge) given to redundant observations such as how lovely it would be if Joe could run around like other children.

Set in 1967, there is no attempt to update proceedings but neither time nor place is laboured. Yes, the mini-dress in orange and brown hoops worn by Pam (a pin-sharp turn from Lucy Eaton) is straight out of Carnaby Street and there’s a passing reference to the long-defunct Nova magazine. 

Her well-meaning if condescending husband Freddie (Clarence Smith) thinks everything can be solved by throwing money at it. In the end, though, Joe’s plight is as it is. And what Nichols has to say about it hasn’t dated by one day.

- A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is at Trafalgar Studios: 0844 871 7632 or