A Day in the Death of Joe Egg – Trafalgar Studios
One of my favourite contemporary playwrights died recently. Peter Nichols lived to be 92 and, for me, his death came much too soon. This revival stars Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner as the loving couple with a burden too heavy to carry – a child so brain-damaged as to need constant minute-to-minute care. How can any marriage survive the grinding assault of a life entirely devoted to the support of a non-responsive but nevertheless living being? The playwright made no secret of the fact that he and his wife did just that. This was his story; he and his wife Thelma took care of their severely disabled daughter until she died at the age of 11. Many of his plays, like this one, deal with the difficulties of staying married in the face of adversity, others with the state of post-WW2 England, but, no matter the seriousness of the subject matter, they all rejoice in his particular brand of humour. This play is often so funny that one stops in the middle of laughter to wonder what on earth one is laughing about.
For most of us, the personal sacrifices implicit in the care of a disabled child are unimaginable and it is important that the immobile body of Joe, their 12-year old daughter, is played in this production by a disabled actor, Storme Toolis, who, fortunately, is nowhere near as disabled as Joe. But her actual situation gives substance to the work involved in looking after Joe, carrying her, moving her, feeding her, as having an able-bodied actor in a wheelchair could not.
Bri (Toby Stephens in a fine but frantic turn) copes, or doesn’t, with a kind of stand-up humour direct to the audience, which is often wicked and almost always funny. His wife, Sheila (Claire Skinner) is lumbered with most of the heavy lifting, figuratively and literally, as Bri wallows comically in the unfairness of their situation. She tries to find occasional relief in amateur theatre and new friends (Clarence Smith and Lucy Eaton, both very good) but most of the burden falls on her and she is cracking under the strain. The strongest performance comes from Patricia Hodge as Bri’s mother, one of those mothers who will always say and do the wrong thing, always make a bad situation worse, sometimes from the best of motives, often not. There is a subtlety in this performance that is a masterclass of understatement, an understanding of who her character really is and how to show that to the audience without ever grabbing the centre stage herself. She is one of those actors who manage to make every other actor on stage with her look even better than they do without her.
In case you were wondering, Peter Nichols’ own marriage survived until his recent death.
The Life I Lead – Wyndham’s Theatre
The popular comedian Miles Jupp is totally engaging in this one-man play about David Tomlinson, recently moved to the West End from the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. These days you might more likely know the name of Miles Jupp than that of David Tomlinson, coming, as he does (Jupp, not Tomlinson) from four very successful years as host of Radio 4’s News Quiz as well as assorted appearances on stage, television and film. Tomlinson, on the other hand, has rather slipped from our collective memory, unless you have children who are addicted to the first film version of Mary Poppins, the one with Julie Andrews. For Tomlinson, once one of the most popular comic actors of his generation, was Mr Banks in that much-loved movie, a character who epitomised the Englishness of the family and the transition from the down to earth to the magical.
As it happens, I knew David Tomlinson slightly (very slightly) as he was my father-in-law’s best friend and found him to be a man very different from how he appeared in more than 50 films as what he himself described as “my dim-witted upperclass twit performances”. He was, in fact, the go-to actor to play posh idiots and he made an excellent living from appearing to be exactly that. In The Life I Lead, however, I saw the man I recognised. The posh voice is still there but so is the intelligence, the thoughtfulness, the wit, and the vulnerability of the man I met.
David Tomlinson had an eventful life, full of incident, and James Kettle’s script tells his story with incisive clarity. Some of the events of his life would be too extraordinary to fit into a single lifetime if you were writing fiction, except that I know them to be true. In Miles Jupp he has an interpreter of quality and, in Selena Cadell, a director of rare sensitivity.
Black Chiffon – Park Theatre
Lesley Storm was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, producing 17 plays, 11 novels, 7 film-scripts, and a volume of short stories. Don’t feel bad, I’d never heard of her either until I saw this melodrama about a woman whose midlife crisis explodes the lives of her family. What gives this production, arriving improbably from Frinton’s Summer Theatre, its strength, is several excellent performances led by Abigail Cruttenden as a very proper upperclass housewife whose reaction to the impending marriage of her only son is so extreme as to break down the conventions of her entire household. The writer and actor Ian Kelly plays her uncomprehending husband in a performance of genuine delicacy which combines the stiff-necked with the vulnerable and, in a small part as the family’s servant, Yvonne Newman conveys both the loyalty and the toughness of a longtime retainer who is both part of, and yet not part of, the family.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.