Peter Nichols’s 1967 play about parents coping with a severely disabled child is just as shocking today, its star Ralf Little tells Laura Davis
CAN a play which shocked 1960s audiences by forcing them to confront the subject of disability maintain its relevance in today’s more openminded society?
That’s the challenge for the team behind a new production of Peter Nichols’ 1967 black comedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg – a collaboration between Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and Rose Theatre Kingston, starring The Royle Family’s Ralf Little.
In the provocative play, a couple try to cope with looking after their young daughter Josephine, who, due to cerebal palsy, has little muscle control and, apart from the occasional groan, cannot speak.
Unable to communicate with their child, they appear to treat her disability as a big joke, giving her imaginary personalities. But behind the tomfoolery, their relationship is strained and they are close to cracking.
“It was shocking in the 60s when it was written because it was very much a time when people didn’t talk openly about things like disability,” says Little, who plays Josephine’s father Bri, a schoolteacher.
“It’s shocking today for a different reason. Now people would be uncomfortable having these things presented to them in such a stark way because we’re a more progressive society.
“It seems to me part of Peter Nichols’s motivation was to say there is no easy discussion about this – it should be shocking – and not to discuss it head on is doing it a disservice.
“And yet despite all this it is a really, really funny play.”
The overriding feeling with which A Day in the Death of Joe Egg leaves you is that it is impossible to understand what it is like to live with a disabled child without having experienced it, which Nichols has.
Despite the apparently insensitive way Bri and his wife Sheila (played by Rebecca Johnson) talk about their daughter, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for them as they wrestle with the idea that the daughter they love has trapped them in a never-ending cycle of obligation.
Their own relationship is one of love-hate. However much they begin to despise one another, they share an unbreakable bond – nobody else understands what they are going through.
Sheila appears to grudgingly accept she will be caring for Josephine (played by Jessica Bastick-Vines, a member of the original West End cast of Billy Elliot) until one of them dies. Meanwhile, Bri’s thoughts are much darker.
“That’s its genius,” says Little.
“The play itself presents no clear solutions. Couples, for example, might discuss the play afterwards and realise they both have a very different viewpoint. It is not an argument to which there is any straightforward answer.”
The passage of time has not only made some of the characters’ attitudes towards disability hard to stomach, but it has also dated some of the play’s language.
It will be hard for an audience today to hear Josephine referred to by the now unacceptable term “spastic” – in fact, it is hard to even type the word without feeling uncomfortable.
“That was a decision we had to discuss very carefully,” says Little, 32.