Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner play Bri and Sheila whose lives and marriage have been strained to breaking point by the demands of raising a daughter Josephine (Storme Toolis) who suffers from cerebral palsy. Their daily routine is only rendered bearable through the adoption of ludicrously jovial black comedy to lift their spirits, which includes playfully referring to Josephine as Joe Egg.
The playwright’s own daughter Abigail, suffered from the condition and tragically died aged just 11. Unsurprisingly, Nichols’ accumulated personal experience both informs and layers the script to such a degree, that the humour - whilst sometimes bleak and close to the bone - is always manically jocular, on point and unsettling because of the grinding nature of the subject. This is particularly evident during the re-telling (directly to the audience) of the tragic birth and subsequent medical incompetence, which is mocked and trivialised. Toby Stephens’ glib and acerbic delivery is an onslaught of witty rejoinders, which barely disguise the weariness and toleration of a father who has surrendered any hope that his child’s condition will improve. As his wife, Claire Skinner flutters stoically, keeping the plates spinning whilst she hopes for miracles which will improve her beloved daughter’s existence, all the while knowing her husband is growing ever distant.
Director Simon Evan’s production also benefits from, a typically self-conscious and mannered turn from Patricia Hodge as Bri’s mum. She is every inch the overbearing, post-war matron, who never judges but lets slip judgements. Thankfully Ms Hodge judges her performance exactly the right side of caricature and in the process, adds considerably to the whole.
Aside from a few dialogue blips and overlaps, the actors had largely found a fluid rhythm and cadence by opening night and the play’s biting wit and twanging of heartstrings - particularly in the second half - ensured it jogged along at a decent lick, never once becoming maudlin or unwatchable.
The poignancy of the play was succinctly encapsulated by Nichols himself writing in his diary in January 1969, when he referred to “...our poor daughter, whose misfortune has given us a certain fame and a safe future, but who can’t share either”.