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Remembering A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My first blog:

Donna Triggs’ sensitive and forthright production of Peter Nichols’ dark comedy, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, continues to work on its audience – if I am remotely typical – like a depth charge almost a month after seeing it at The Garage, Norwich. So no apologies for taking all this time to reflect on the play and its staging.

When I first saw the play, it was the late 1960s and I was a teenager. I remember being shocked by the staging of severe physical handicap: in those days, with the exception of the men [sic] maimed in war, who tended to carry their wounds proudly, the disabled were hidden away. I was on the cusp of adulthood yet apart from the teenage girl next door, a spastic polio victim – yes, that was indeed the accepted language, shared by experts and family members alike – I had never encountered severe disability: not at school, not among friends or relatives, certainly not in books, magazines or on radio or tv. Ironside, the first police series to feature a wheelchair-bound detective wasn’t yet screening in Britain.

It takes an effort to recall – let alone to imagine – quite how shocking Joe Egg then was. As well as displaying the face of severe disability in the character of Joesephine, confined to a wheelchair, incapable of speech and, as is made brutally clear, unable to control her bodily motions, the play presents in her parents, Bri and Sheila, two contrasting characters, the father as desperately clownish as the mother is doggedly, painfully, resilient. The mind games that Bri and Sheila play as they dance and improvise something approaching a normal married life around their daughter’s central presence – central absence, I should say  – is the very heart of the play’s first half, along with the personality traits they invent for Joesephine in order, it seems, to sustain their open-hearted devotion.

In the second half of the play, two new characters, Freddie and Pam, long-term friends of Bri and Sheila, are introduced, serving to embody the outside world and its varying conventional views of disability. While Freddie, who is well-intentioned and keen that Bri and Sheila should be ‘practical’, sketches out a humane solution to what he sees as Bri and Sheila’s intolerable predicament, Pam, his wife, displays a feeling of revulsion at the very thought and sight of disability, as if it were not merely traumatic but somehow intrinsically impolite or indecent.

It is at this point that the focus of Donna Triggs’ production seemed to shift from Joesephine’s parents – roles performed with maniacal energy by Robin Watson and titanic calm by Lois Entwistle – to Joesephine herself and, perhaps surprisingly, to Pam (played by the director herself). And as this shift in our attention proceeded, so did our self-questioning. From ‘could I ever be as good-humoured and inventive as Bri or as resilient and loving as Sheila?’ we moved to an examination of first Joesephine and then Pam.

From the outset, Moira Hickson’s formidably rich and suggestive portrayal of Joesephine repeatedly raised the suspicion that there was an active mind, a will and a consciousness at work there, despite the absence in the text or on the stage of any real evidence to that effect. And so it was that Joesephine,  the object – or mere occasion – of the play curiously became its central subject as we, in imitation of Bri and Sheila, began to seek and almost involuntarily to construct a personality for ‘Joe’, willing her to live more fully. At the same time as this process unfolded, the character of Pam seemed to turn from vulgarly reprehensible, a perfect model of how not to react, to pitiful and deeply human.

After the performance I attended, there was an extended discussion with the actors, the director, and also with members of The Hamlet, a Norwich-based disability centre, including a severely disabled young man and his mother. When asked how she judged the characters and attitudes represented in the play, the young man’s mother not only voiced sympathy and understanding for Bri and Sheila but proved quite unwilling to condemn Pam, whose revulsion she attributed to simple ignorance and, above all, to fear.

Time was spent discussing the way language and perceptions have changed for the better in the last fifty years, since the play was written. Yet there is clearly no room for condescension towards the past nor for complacency about the present circumstances for disabled people. What has been achieved in terms of rights and inclusion took years of campaigning by those most directly involved and also required support and solidarity from wider society. In times that remain austere, this engagement will remain essential. Triggs’ Joe Egg and the work of The Hamlet, in different ways, will be important in this struggle.

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