TIM WALKER reviews Peter Nichols’ extraordinary 1967 play, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which was inspired by the author’s own experience of raising his daughter.
Even an actor of Laurence Olivier’s stature could not now have got away with playing Othello as it’s rightly accepted that black roles should be played by black actors. Storme Toolis wants to see this principle extended to disabled actors playing disabled roles. It so happens the actress has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. In A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, she plays Joe, who’s in precisely the same predicament.
Toolis’ performance makes her case very powerfully for her. She is without question the living, beating heart at the centre of this extraordinary, emotionally-charged production. Seldom, if ever, have I seen such inspired casting.
Peter Nichols’ play, first staged in 1967, now feels in some respects dated. It approaches a difficult subject in a way that seems unsubtle, if not cruel, when judged against contemporary mores. Simon Evans’ direction is workmanlike, rather than inspired, and he basically leaves it to the actors to make something good out of it.
Happily, they manage to do so. Toby Stephens plays a weary inner-city teacher, whose way of coping with his daughter’s condition is to continually make light of it. His saintly wife, played by Claire Skinner, faces it head-on and her love for the youngster is obvious. Patricia Hodge, as Stephens’ no-nonsense mother, thinks in terms of blame: they never had any problems like this on “their side of the family”.
A couple of awful friends pop over in the shape of Lucy Eaton and Clarence Smith and the question of whether it’s right for a child to take such a heavy toll on their parents is less than humanely raised. All the while, Toolis is on stage, alert to what’s happening around her, dominating the proceedings without uttering so much as a single discernible word.
Inevitably, it’s the big stars who have their names up in lights outside of the theatre and on the posters, and all three of them are on great form, but this is Toolis’ show. What a life-enhancing experience she makes it.
On a lighter note, I caught up, too, with The Man in the White Suit at Wyndham’s Theatre and Ghost Stories at the Ambassadors. The first stars the perennially-youthful Stephen Mangan, one of the funniest stage actors on the planet. I am not, however, sure if this adaptation of the old Ealing film comedy is tailor-made for his talents. Sean Foley has come up with a threadbare script and the whole thing falls apart long before Mangan’s titular suit. Still, it’s always a pleasure to see that wonderful old character actor Richard Durden on stage, playing a ruthless textiles magnate. Pure class.
Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories is, meanwhile, shockingly entertaining. The late, great Peter Cushing always used to say that horror only works when it’s played dead straight and that’s exactly what the actors Simon Lipkin, Garry Cooper and Preston Nyman do in this portmanteau production. There’s no greater collywobblingly good fun to be had on the London stage.