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A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

by Peter Nichols

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
19 October 12 November
2011

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Cast List

Freddie Joseph Chance
Pam
Olivia Darnley
Bri
Miles Jupp
Grace
Miriam Margolyes 
Sheila
– Sarah Tansey

Directed by Phillip Breen
Designed by Max Jones
Lighting Design
er
Tina MacHugh
asst director
richard lavery
Production Manager
Graham Sutherland
Company Manager
Jackie Muir
Stage Management: CSM
Laura Walshe; DSM Cathy O'Neil; ASM Barry Fforde 
  

  


 
Miles Jupp interviewed by The Scotsman.
 
Peter Nichols interviewed by The Herald.

Trailer

 
Conversations with the cast

 
Dominic Hill in conversation with Peter Nichols and Phillip Breen

 
 


  
Reviews


The Scotsman
by Joyce McMillan
 
The 1960’s: love them or hate them, these were the years that defined the social world we now inhabit; the decade when British society ceased to be governed by national and religious pieties, and began to adopt a new moral code that prioritised fun, freedom, and the joy of “doing your own thing.” So it’s perhaps not surprising that as the booming consumer economy of the last half-century begins to crash and burn, more and more theatre-makers are revisiting the decade that made us; for fun, for reflection, and to offer a salute to the free creative spirits of that time, who dreamed dreams that still seem radical today.
 
And of those creative souls, none more richly deserves recognition than the playwright Peter Nichols, whose great 1967 play A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg has now been revived at the Citizens’, on the stage where it had its world premiere 44 years ago. Nichols is now 84 years old; but he was present, and in fine form, for last weekend’s opening of his best-known play, which famously deals with one of the toughest subjects imaginable, in that it portrays the desperate struggle of a young married couple, Brian and Sheila, to care for their hopelessly handicapped ten-year-old-daughter Josephine, known as “Joe Egg”.
 
Brian is a long-suffering schoolteacher; and heartbreakingly but all-too-believably, his main strategy for coping with the situation lies in a bitter and ferocious black humour. In the first half, Nichols’s play offers a moving and sometimes shocking portrait of a marriage bound together by love and desire, yet collapsing under intolerable pressure; in the second half, a cast of tragi-comic supporting characters appear, in the shape of Sheila’s drama-club friends Freddie and Pam, and Brian’s hilarious, impossible and smothering mother, played here by the great Miriam Margolyes.
 
If the casting of Margolyes is a stroke of genius, though, it’s only the first of many in Phillip Breen’s flawless and sometimes brilliant production. Miles Jupp and Sarah Tansey, as Brian and Sheila, are both superb and heartbreaking; and Max Jones’s claustrophobic, box-sized 1960’s living-room set advances and retreats to superb effect, as the characters both act out their tragi-comic situation, and move forward into the spotlight, centre-stage, to appal and entertain the Citizens’ audience with the black comedy and vaudeville of their situation.
 
And in the end, this play achieves the miracle of all great drama, by delving so deep into the reality of its own time that it somehow speaks to all time. It’s Brian and Sheila’s tragedy to be trapped by a huge and crushing obligation at a time when society all around them is talking of freedom. Yet the dilemmas they face still surround us every day, when it comes to the care of those who cannot care for themselves; and in some ways, given our shifting demography, are even more pressing and contested now, than they were in 1967.
 
 

The Times 
by Robert Dawson Scott

The slow but increasingly sure rediscovery of Peter Nichols has arrived in Scotland. A lively production of Privates on Parade at Pitlochry this summer is now followed by this classy staging of his debut play about two increasingly desperate parents looking after a severely disabled child. How fitting that it should come from the Glasgow Citizens where, in 1967, it was first unveiled before going on to win glittering prizes on both sides of the Atlantic.
 
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg still feels fantastically modern, too, despite the nice period details in Max Jones's designs, thanks to Nichols's life-long fascination with vaudeville and showmanship. Never mind a fourth wall, there's not so much as a railing here, as characters slip in and out of character or launch in to direct appeals to the audience.
 
From the very start, weary schoolteacher Bri is keeping his fourth form class - that will be us in the audience - behind after the bell goes. Since Bri is played by Miles Jupp, best known as the posh stand up comedian (though his performance here confirms his growing status as a straight actor), he has no difficulty raising a laugh from such antics.
 
But the underlying tragedy of the play is no laughing matter and Bri's constant wise-cracking is only his way of dealing with the unbearable reality of the situation in which he and his wife Sheila (Sarah Tansey) find themselves.
 
In 1967 the play was nearly banned for the idea that it was possible for a parent to even to consider the possibility of allowing their child to die. But the dilemma facing some parents has not changed nor have the possible outcomes. Advances in medical care that have made undreamt-of improvements for some have kept alive others who might have passed peacefully on. So in that sense too the play is as contemporary as ever.
 
Add in Phillip Breen's supple, fluent direction and Jupp and Tansey will break your heart at times as they wrestle with each other, with the reactions of their friends Freddie and Pam and with Bri's overwhelming mother (a nicely understated cameo from Miriam Margolyes). Gripping stuff.
 
 

The Herald 
by Neil Cooper
 
If Ricky Gervais wants a few tips on what constitutes real artistic taboo-breaking, he should perhaps consider attending Phillip Breen’s revival of Peter Nichols’ dangerously black comedy.
 
First presented on the same stage 44 years ago, this tale of a couple whose freefall marriage is defined by their daughter’s disability may be a jazz-soundtracked period piece, but it retains more comedic edge than much contemporary fare.
 
It begins with Miles Jupp’s frustrated teacher Bri addressing the audience as if we’re an unruly end of afternoon classroom. Moving indoors to his seemingly domestic bliss with Sarah Tansey’s highly-strung Sheila, right, it soon becomes clear the pair have constructed an elaborate game centred around wheelchair-bound Joe. With such survival strategies becoming increasingly exhausting, Sheila has taken refuge in amateur dramatics, leaving Bri, hemmed in by his own frustrated intelligence, to what turns out to be his own extreme devices.
 
Breen’s production flits between music hall archness and gut-wrenching seriousness, something with which Jupp’s own in-the-moment experience as a stand-up helps sustain. All involved speak out-front to the audience as if we’re complicit in some voguish group therapy. Even Sheila’s ghastly am-dram pals get to say their piece like drawing-room relics.
 
Nichols’ one-liners are deadly, and Miriam Margolyes’ cameo as Bri’s twin-set clad mum Grace is a masterclass in suburban grotesquery. Combined, an increasingly desperate portrait emerges of a society emotionally and institutionally ill-equipped to deal with anything out of the ordinary. No change there.
 
 
Sunday Herald
by Mark Brown

For those who like their theatre to have past form, this production must seem like an odds-on favourite. Peter Nichols’s acclaimed black comedy about a couple (Sheila and Brian) bringing up a child (Josephine) who suffered profound mental and physical disabilities at birth began its life at the Citz; rejected by a number of theatres in the West End of London (because, one imagines, its candid approach to its subject matter was considered too hot to handle), it received its premiere at the Gorbals playhouse in 1967. Adapted twice for the screen, it has attracted such actors as Janet Suzman, Alan Bates, Eddie Izzard and Prunella Scales.
 
As this homecoming production attests, the play is still a talent magnet. The universally excellent cast includes the superb Miriam Margolyes (of Harry Potter and Blackadder fame) and comedian and actor Miles Jupp (a performer whose stature seems to grow year on year). Director Phillip Breen has a strong sense of the vaudevillian aspect to the drama, and is assisted brilliantly in this by Max Jones’s set; a retracting living room from which characters step into a bleak music hall.
The enduring appeal of the play isn’t difficult to discern. Whilst – in its comedy of British social manners and politics in the late Sixties – it is very much a work of its time, Nichols has a capacity with comedy and tragedy which resonates (think a collision between Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone And Treacle; although it predates both).
 
As the marriage between Sheila and Brian (Sarah Tansey’s in control, yet teetering, Sheila contrasting wonderfully with Jupp’s bumbling and clever schoolteacher) disintegrates before our eyes, one wonders how far our society has actually advanced in the last 44 years where caring for profoundly disabled children, and supporting their parents and guardians, is concerned.
 
 

The Guardian
by Mark Fisher
 
In 1967, an unknown playwright called Peter Nichols sent a script on spec to the Citizens Theatre. Remarkable not only for its subject matter but also for its tone, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was a comedy about a couple caring for a physically disabled 10-year-old girl. After its premiere in Glasgow, it went on to be a West End hit, gallows humour and all.
 
The play still feels unsettlingly frank in its depiction of carers under stress. Bri and Sheila, the parents, use the driest of black humour as a coping mechanism. That they are the ones doing the work allows them to give voice to dark desires that, even in today's world of taboo-busting comedians, still seem a daring inclusion in the play.
 
It's an unusually structured work that builds from a two-hander with the feel of an improv workshop to a six-person sitcom that anticipates the social awkwardness of Abigail's Party. In Phillip Breen's production, the first half lacks comic spark. With regulation schoolteacher corduroy and chalk dust on his elbows, Miles Jupp works hard as Bri, but is more a genial man with a dry sense of humour than a parent driven to the vicious comedy of desperation.
 
Sarah Tansey provides an effective foil as his self-denigrating wife, but the balance between shock and laughter seems uncertain until after the interval, when the production comes into its own and the clash of public sentiment and private trauma is at its most pronounced. With Miriam Margolyes doing a cameo as Bri's overbearing mother, it gets funnier as it gets bleaker, making the central dilemma seem more intractable still.
 
 

What's On Stage
by Scott Purvis
 
The language of disability has changed vastly since Peter Nichols' controversial yet celebrated A Day in the Death of Joe Egg had its world premiere at the Citizens Theatre in 1967. It is a curious thing that words like "spastic", freely and innocently used throughout the two hour long play, have a greater power to wound in the 21st century than they ever could in the decade it was written. And perhaps that is part of the value of this fascinating, witty and thought-provoking play. 
 
Times have changed somewhat, although they probably have not changed as much as we would like to think. Here we have parents, driven to the brink of insanity and self-destruction, trying to cope with the personal difficulties and social prejudices associated with raising a child with cerebral palsy in 1960s England. A surprisingly modern play, it welcomes its characters to step outside of their existence, analysing their life story and frustrations with colour and vigour. 
 
Miles Jupp and Sarah Tansey are excellent as Bri and Sheila, a couple struggling to reconcile their own emotions and marital problems. Jupp is superb as father Bri, storming around the stage with a manic eloquence and a receptive comic performance. Tansey, too, finds the vulnerability at the centre of her character, indulging her husband’s and introspectively pleading for answers with sincere passion. 
 
Comedy is, as Nichols suggests, “a useful anaesthetic” to the severity of the play’s reality and director Phillip Breen has brought together some incredibly sharp wits. Olivia Darnleyplays Pam, friend to the couple and smiling assassin, with all of the vicious inequality of the class system which she props up, and Joseph Chance plays husband Freddie with warmth and genuine compassion. 
 
Despite only appearing in the last quarter of the play, Miriam Margolyes performance proves her worth as one of the finest female actors in British theatre as Bri’s mum Grace. Proving that you cannot spell "smother" without "mother", she elicits involuntary snorts of laughter from her audience, perfectly spinning Nichols' incidental, Bennett-like yarns on tea at the Odeon and the plight of the middle classes with masterful intonation and endless spirit. 
 
When Nichols wrote A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, it was a revealing portrait of his own experiences: more than forty years later, Breen's production is an indictment, a shocking exposé of our treatment of the disabled in the past.
 
 
STV.COM
by Alan Chadwick
 
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg makes a triumphant return to the Citz
Peter Nichols’ harrowing, yet mesmerising, play about a couple’s marriage crumbling under the weight of looking after a mentally handicapped child, was named by the National Theatre as one of the greatest plays of the 20thcentury.
 
The fact that it has never been produced at the National (just one of many theatre companies that deemed the taboo-busting drama too hot to handle when they were originally sent the script in the late 60s) is an irony not lost on the playwright, who made a special Q&A cameo appearance at the Citz last night for Phillip Breen’s splendid new production of the play. 
 
Breen’s production is something of a homecoming for Nichols, who drew on his own experiences of his first child for the piece.
 
Comically absurd and heartbreaking by turn, employing a clash of styles - farce, high drama and stand up comedy - as well as characters breaking through the “fourth wall” to address the audience directly to express emotions and attitudes they can’t express to each other, “Joe Egg” first premiered at the Citz back in 1967, before transferring to London’s West End, and then onto Broadway.
 
Now it returns to its original roots, starring Harry Potter’s Miriam Margolyes, stand -up comedian Miles Jupp, Heartbeat’s Sarah Tansey, Joseph Chance and Olivia Darnley. And the thought provoking 60s classic has lost none of its power. Or its power to shock, as it plumbs great emotional depths while still managing to be incredibly funny. 
 
At the play’s centre is wheelchair bound 10 year-old Josephine, or “Joe Egg”, as her parents - infantile, quick witted, harassed Bristol schoolteacher Bri (Jupp), and his doting wife Sheila (Sarah Tansey) - dub her. 
 
Her condition, as well as the condition of Bri and Sheila’s marriage, is then put under the microscope through a series of in-house Vaudevillian skits that populate the play detailing Joe’s history, as well as the agonies the couple have been through.
 
So pious vicars and not so compassionate paediatricians are lampooned, moral arguments about euthanasia raised. Then there's Bri’s relentless mockery, and constant joking, which is an “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry” but ultimately soul destroying, defence mechanism against the harsh reality of the situation, that Sheila feels duty bound to go along with, even if her heart isn’t in it.
 
The second act sees smug friends, “socialist” industrialist Freddie (Chance, veering on a parody of Boycey from Only Fools and Horses); Darnley’s excellent snobbish Pam, whose non-PC views about “the wierdie” are truer of most people than they’d like to think, and Bri’s fussing mother (Margolyes), chip in their tuppenceworth.
 
Jupp turns in a riveting performance as the unravelling Bri, whose fantasy of getting life back to normal by killing his daughter is pushed to the brink in a role that seems tailor made for him. Tansey is equally impressive, turning in a deeply moving performance as the mother living on her nerves who hasn’t given up hope that things may improve. Both will surely be there, or thereabouts, when the CATS awards for Scottish theatre are dished out next year. 
 
Playwrights, like novelists fall in and out fashion. A fate Nichols knows only too well. But every so often a revival of Joe Egg serves as a reminder of what a hugely talented playwright he is.
 
To that list can now be added Breen’s excellent production for the Citz. Which seems only fitting, seeing as the Gorbals was where the success of Joe Egg was first hatched.
 
It should be played like Coward, not Strindberg is Nichols’ take on the play. And Breen has taken him at his word here. If laughter in the dark is what you’re after , look no further. But prepare yourself for an emotional rollercoaster.
 
 
The Stage
by Gareth K Vile
 
Even after 44 years, Peter Nichols’ script still sparkles with its cutting observations of social unease around disability, and its sharp satire of simplistic solutions to impossible situations. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, part knockabout comedy, part serious study of the impact of a badly disabled child on a couple, refuses the pieties of both 1960s’ incomprehension and contemporary political correctness.
 
Although Miriam Margolyes lights up the stage as the aging, manipulative mother-in-law, switching easily between addressing the audiences and diving back into the drama, Phillip Breen’s direction allows the whole cast a chance to shine. While they are more comfortable acting out the domestic tragedy than playing the stand-up, slap-stick routines of the first act, Miles Jupp (Bri) and Sarah Tansey (Sheila) emphasise the bitter battles of the bedroom, making their disabled child a symbol of their own neediness and immaturity.
 
Jupp does not shy away from Bri’s nasty selfishness, even as he captures his intelligent good humour. The arrival of socialist industrialist Freddie (Joseph Chance) and his wife Pam - Olivia Darnley almost makes her savage snobbery sympathetic - highlights the play’s historical origins: while Chance is all bluster and misplaced enthusiasm, they represent a class now replaced, while standing for an innocent, yet useless, positivity.
 
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is brutal, funny and provocative. The actors are challenged to jump across genres, picturing a reality bounded by a child’s absolute dependence, but made into a hell by their own personal failures.
 
 



  

Miles Jupp. Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
  

Miles Jupp. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp. Photo © Pete Le May
  

 Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp and Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp and  Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp and  Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Photo © Pete Le May
 

  Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp and  Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Set by Max Jones. Lighting by Tina MacHugh. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Set by Max Jones. Lighting by Tina MacHugh. Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp, Joseph Chance and  Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Joseph Chance. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Olivia Darnley. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Olivia Darnley and Joseph Chance. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp. Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miriam Margolyes. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miriam Margolyes. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp and Miriam Margolyes. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miriam Margolyes. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miriam Margolyes and Miles Jupp. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Miles Jupp and  Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Sarah Tansey. Photo © Pete Le May
  

Set by Max Jones. Lighting by Tina MacHugh. Photo © Pete Le May
 
 


 
 

 


  
 
 


 
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