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The Death of Joe Egg

Last night, M and I saw an
extraordinary play, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
(Rose Theatre,
by Peter Nicholls.

It is not a new play.  Joe Egg was first played in 1967 in Glasgow, before getting an extended run in the West End.  I missed
it then, probably because I was in the process of moving to the United States,
and I am glad to have been given the opportunity to catch up with it.

The work is extraordinary in
large part because of the way it deftly combines scenes of high tragedy with intervals
of low comedy.  The line between the two is
a fine one when the subject is as sensitive as it is here, the impact of a
severely handicapped child on the marriage of her hapless, anguished parents, but
Peter Nicholls somehow tiptoes along it with the dexterity of a ballet dancer, without
making the audience squirm with embarrassment. 
Use of the word ‘spastic’ caused a few gasps on the night we were there,
but fifty years ago this was a term used without causing offence.  There was in those days a charity called The
Spastic Society.  

The play is partly
autobiographical.  Nicholls himself had a
handicapped child, which survived only to the age of eleven.  To add poignancy to the proceedings, the
director of this revival, Stephen Unwin, has also suffered the experience through
a 16-year-old son who suffers from what he describes as ‘profound learning difficulties’.

The child of Nicholls’ play,
nicknamed Joe Egg – an ironic parental response to her inability to move –
occupies centre-stage for long periods – needless to say, without uttering a
word.  Confined to a wheelchair in a contorted
foetal position, she makes few sounds and fewer movements, of which the most
obvious, and the worst, are those caused by epileptic seizures, any of which has
the potential to kill her. 

The thought of allowing her to
die has crossed the tortured minds of both parents, and more than once.  In one scene, a visiting couple of
astonishing insensitivity openly advocate doing so an act of ‘kindness’.  As the awful wife says, addressing the
audience directly, “If I say gas chamber, that makes it sound horrid – but I do
mean put to sleep”.   Boo, hiss.

Hardly the stuff of comedy, you
may be thinking, but between the scenes of anguished parents struggling to cope
with a child incapable of recognising, let alone responding to, any form of
affectionate stimuli, Nicholls squirts in one-liners that often had the
audience chortling aloud.  These may have
been designed to offer release, it’s true, but they are no less funny for

The best lines come from the
father, a cynical, disillusioned schoolteacher in a failing comprehensive, who
may be on the brink of a breakdown.  He
considers just walking out to relieve the pain. 
That hardly makes him a likeable fellow, but in sympathising with his
plight, we can readily identify with his responses to it, however inappropriate
they may seem.  The wife despises him for
his weakness, but judging by her obsession with a variety of pets, her
affection for them perceived by the husband as at his expense, she is hardly in
better shape.

I am not going to reveal the
ending because I hope you will consider seeing, or even reading, the play.

It is a roller-coaster ride of
rollicking laughs and painful truths, and in a word, shattering. 


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