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A Day In the Death Of Joe Egg

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This comedy follows a young couple's struggle to deal with marriage, career and family. As they try to make light of their situation, Bri and Shelia resort to humour and fantasy as a way to get through each day.
Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1.

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      06.01.2002 15:19
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      Bri is tired of teaching. He's tired of the endless detentions, the naughtiness, the children who don't want to learn, and he amuses himself by sending up his situation. He creates enjoyment from detention time by hamming it up; making hands go on heads, inflicting one minute silences on his hapless pupils, and when he's bored of that he leaves the room "for a moment" but never returns, leaving his class wondering what on earth's going on. Bri is tired of everything. At home, waits his wife, Sheila, with his daughter, Joe, but going home for him is not respite. Joe is severely disabled, she cannot fend for herself, she can't communicate at all and, for Bri, bitter, scathing, gallows humour is a coping mechanism. He delights to shock with his references to her condition and with inappropriate behaviour at every turn. His wife Sheila is a gentle, earnest woman who has an endless supply of love to give her child, and a bottomless well of hope for a better future. Joe goes to a day care centre, but still lives with her parents, for Sheila is convinced that she would pine and suffer if sent to a residential home. For Bri, Sheila's constant yearning for improvement, her positive spin on any event, serves not to create a bearable way of life, but only to make the inevitable lows seem lower. Their friend, Freddie, would like to help them break out of this suffocating situation but his attempts, though well-meaning, are crass, as people so often are where children, disability and mental handicap are concerned. Freddie's wife, Pam, is more honest. She cringes at the thought of Joe and doesn't disguise it. Bri's mother hovers in the background, speaking concern and worry and help but in reality manipulating her son's situation to her own, selfish advantage. And eventually the fissures in the relationship between Bri and Sheila, the pressure of trying to decide what do to about Joe, lead to desperation and the desp
      erate acts that go with it. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is by turns hilariously funny and heart-wrenchingly sad. My companion and I laughed an awful lot but we both needed to wipe away a tear or two. The first act, the telling of the story of how Joe came to be as she is, is the strongest - through both Bri's (played by Eddie Izzard) bitter jokes, his hamming and clowning, and Sheila's (played by Victoria Hamilton) shining-eyed, emotionally-open recounting of the catalogue of errors and misfortune that led to Joe's life is opened up for us to see in all its hopeless sadness. They tell their story separately and together, to the audience, interspersed with small moments of conventional dialogue. This works amazingly well as Izzard's wisecracking is hilarious in its hamminess, his groping of his wife is dreadfully cringe-making, his calling his daughter "a spastic" is jaw-droppingly arresting, and yet you believe him when he pauses and tells you he's become only "a shell or something". Hamilton's huge, shining blue eyes and heartfelt story of love are equally heart-breaking but utterly convincing and their double act as they impersonate bungling doctors, well-meaning friends, and even a happy-clappy vicar is touching, funny and is a representation of a marriage that has a great deal of love, but is at risk despite that, and is as close to the bone as you could imagine. There is a particularly touching moment in Act II where Bri and Sheila are holding their child between them and they lapse, as is their habit, into talking to each other as if they were Joe, using one of the personalities they have invented for her. As they talk, they smile, look over the child into each others eyes and it is clear that their friends and Bri's mother are forgotten. Slowly, they start to sway gently, rocking Joe, as if there were music in the room that only they can hear. It's a beautiful moment: Sheila is reaching o
      ut for Bri with the unconditional love and endless optimism that defines her, Bri's humour loses its bitterness and takes a gentler form, one that allows him to feel the love that exists even within his damaged family and you can't help but think, "If only they could have hung on to that they'd have managed." I was smiling, but I felt sad because it was so clear how few and far between such moments can be for families in trouble. Hamilton and Izzard work superbly well together - at the performance we saw she added a line in one scene, causing Izzard to wander off into some hilarious ad-libs, causing her in turn to corpse and the audience to shriek with laughter. It is a testament to Izzard's comic talent, but also the clear and close relationships the production has created, that the drama didn't falter for a moment. As much as we saw Izzard and Hamilton clown, we saw a married couple come together to tell a sad story, but their story, one that they must have told many times before, and clown over the telling. Wonderful. The rest of the cast are more than solid - Freddie the rich but oafish friend with his well-meaning shoes taking size thirteen at least, the awful, snobbish Pam and the wonderfully snide, but dreadful Prunella Scales as Bri's mother. And of course Joe herself, the damaged child who has nothing to do but make your heart contract as she sits, still as still, and then fits, and fits and fits again. That is not "nothing to do", is it? I loved Joe Egg, although I think in lesser hands it might have been too much. It would be easy to overdo and make mawkish. Even with the wonderful Izzard and Hamilton, and a super, professional, faultless cast in support this may not be the play for you. If you don't think it could ever be right to make a belly-laugh from the word "spastic" or from a patronising, idiotic doctor mispronouncing "wegetable", or from a drunken GP who thinks
      gripe water is a cure-all, or from an overbearing, interfering, manipulative mother-in-law saying "Wouldn't she be lovely if only she were running about?" then I don't think you'd like Joe Egg. If you think that is you though, then perhaps you'd like to think about Peter Nicholls, the writer. His child was severely disabled and this play is his response. Over thirty years old now, Joe Egg had trouble making it past the censors in its early days. There are parts of the play which may grate slightly. A lot of the action in Act II depends upon Bri and Sheila not having a phone, for example, when an ambulance is required, and Freddie's champagne socialist is rather dated, Izzard's accent veers a little. But the sadness isn't dated, and neither are the jokes, in my opinion. The Comedy theatre is small and quite intimate and a perfect venue for an emotionally-gripping play that makes such a vivid and direct connection with its audience. It wasn't made to be a spectacle you see. It's only on until January 26th, but if you hurry, you'll get in. I think I'll remember the day I saw Joe Egg for a long time. Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1 Box Office: 020 7369 1731 7.30pm Monday to Saturday 2.30pm Matinee on Thursday and Saturday Alternatively visit www.ticketmaster.com [PS - Argh! So sorry all - I was so excited to discover I didn't have to suggest this I didn't realise the item existed under the theatre in which it had its original run until I saw it after I'd posted. Oops! I'll email to get it moved straightaway. Mucho apologies!]

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