REVIEW: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg by Mary Ellen Dyson

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  • 16th November 2019

Drum roll….. proud moment…. Mary Ellen Dyson aged 12, a regular at The Story Room since she was 7 years old, has written this accomplished and moving review of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. She sent it to What’s On Stage and they were so impressed with her writing that they have commissioned to write another, inviting her to press night of another play. We are very excited for her and not surprised that her writing career has began so early. We have always said that her name would be written in lights one day… and it will! It is a privilege to have Mary Ellen in our teen classes.


A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (Trafalgar Studios)

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a play, at its core, about how a family deals with raising a disabled daughter and the impact this has on the family’s relationships with each other, written by the great Peter Nichols, inspired by his own experience of bringing up his disabled daughter, Abigail.

It has been advertised as a “black, Vaudevillian comedy” and it most certainly lives up to that description. The jokes don’t stop coming, right the way through the play. Having some personal experience with this, being part of a family with a disabled child, it is all the more relatable and hilarious, as it is a very familiar way to me of coping through comedy. The jokes, on paper, might seem a bit sick, but are brilliantly portrayed to fully display their intention of being a “useful anaesthetic”. 

What surprised me about this play was the script’s level of familiarity to someone with a relatively similar home life. I felt that the script really manages to get to the core of the family dynamic and the different methods of coping when it comes to dealing with this kind of situation. I was shocked at how much I felt that the words said by Bri and Sheila, Joe Egg’s parents, could be coming out of my own parents’ mouths. I was also amazed at how similarly the parents deal with this situation, and how much they seem to step into gender roles in this situation. Even with personal experience, it can be very difficult to write so honestly about your own home life, so I praise Peter Nichols heartily for his brilliant achievements in this script. And, with the brilliant portrayal of the situation aside, Nichols has also written a very unique script that turns this family into a “play within a play”, a style that really works for getting lots of backstory in and helps the actors engage and interact with the audience, and helps to keep the audience laughing in a situation that they might feel they shouldn’t. The jokes are not only accurate, but hilarious, and they stop it from becoming too heavy as a play, what with some quite heavy subject matter. And at more serious moments, Nichols can grasp hold of your emotions and twist you straight from laughter to tears – I cried harder than I had in a long time when I saw this show – but you will soon make your way back into the land of laughter again. This script brilliantly depicts the lives of these people and manages to engage the audience splendidly.

The play is also fabulously staged. The set is a couple of feet off the floor, and the directors have used this to its full potential. As the nature of the play is “a play within a play”, the actors will often come off the stage when giving an almost Shakespearean soliloquy to the audience, helping the actors to interact with the audience further and to give the play a greater sense of realism, as the audience is meant to feel that the actors are talking directly to them during the monologues. It has been very innovatively staged by the directors, utilising an already fabulous script to its greatest potential.

Now, one cannot have completed a full appraisal of this show without appreciating the actors’ amazing work in this show. As Toby Stephens, who plays Bri, said: “None of us have any personal experience in this area ourselves”, yet they did a stunning job at portraying it. I was utterly convinced by Stephens and Claire Skinner, who plays Sheila. I felt that it was very realistic and I warmed to the characters who were so relatable and came across as clearly very human. I really did feel that they had put my own parents on stage, and words cannot describe the depth and love in those characters. I must also praise Lucy Eaton’s portrayal of Pam, whom I felt she gave a lot of humanity and relatability to. Clarence Smith also delivered the bluster and bluff of Freddie in a manner that is so comical, it actually begins to border on non-naturalistic when taken at face value, yet really embodies our very human desire to help with good grace, and the very human thing we do where we say the most insensitive and horrible things without actually meaning them that way. I do applaud Storme Toolis’ ability to be convincing in this role without having the exact same impairment. I also really enjoyed Patricia Hodge’s portrayal of Grace, whom she played as comic relief, which was really welcome at that point in the show and also really suited the character – however, she also adds the grandmother’s love and care as a small, yet notable, degree of depth. 

Overall, this play is most certainly one of the best plays I have ever seen, mainly because it is so relatable and hilarious. I would give it a full five stars and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for something different in the world of theatrical comedy.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 30th November, starring Toby Stephens, Claire Skinner and Patricia Hodge.

By Mary-Ellen Dyson