“That’s enough!” A voice rings out from the back of the Lissiter Auditorium at Mills College, angrily moving forward through the house. The audience, just seated, was waiting for the play (TheatreFIRST’s Joe Egg) to begin, finding itself suddenly to be the play, for the moment.
Yet still they are passive onlookers while Bri (played by Simon Vance) launches into them, orders hands on heads, eyes forward, singles out gigglers, talkers. Bri’s a schoolteacher in front of his class, letting them have it: “I’ve got all the time in the world . . . You’re the losers, not me!”
The show starts with a bang (and Bri jokes around with a gesture he’ll repeat, “shooting” at the audience with his hands as pistols). This kind of “demolishing theatre’s fourth wall” (as Director Clive Chafer puts it in his notes) is a legacy of British Music Hall, translated to the “legit stage” (with a little Bertolt Brecht, modified, thrown in) during the ‘60s by directors like Joan Littlewood (and Bri’s facing down the audience as if they were his pupils reminds one a little of Victor Spinetti’s Drill Sergeant in Oh What a Lovely War).
Chafer also points out that much that was “groundbreaking” and “shocking” in theater of the ‘60s, or the world itself back then, “has since become unremarkable.” This is a point that comes home with a vengeance by the end of the play, because exactly those modes of performing—and coping with difficult issues—that may seem a bit dated (if nonetheless engaging) gain in pathos and irony as the story is told.
And much of it is told directly to us, confidentially—or acted out with a high-spirited gallows humor. But not on a bare stage like stand-up—in an abrupt shift from the institutional hazing of the classroom, we see Bri in his sitting-room at home, just back from school, like a kid himself, playfully trying to pull his wife Sheila (Cynthia Chadwick) to the bedroom, startling her, tickling her, then telling whimsically, joking all the while, of his day when she demurs at love because “Joe will be home” any moment.
“Joe” is Josephine (played by Miranda Swain), Bri and Sheila’s “spastic” daughter (though called “spastic” or “mongoloid” in the dialogue, it seems she’s a victim of cerebral palsy). She enters in a wheelchair, splayed arm, upturned eyes, mute except for inarticulate whimpers. Her parents deluge her with affection—and humor, answering for her as well. Later they act out her birth and the discovery of her disability, Bri playing the GP, the specialists, the vicar. Later, Sheila “confides” in us that she goes along with Bri in the humor and play-acting: He’s in despair, she’s not. (He believes in “his own kind of god—a manic-depressive Rugby scrummer”). But Bri’s also got Sheila to join a community theater group—real play-acting—while she encourages him to paint. Bri’s reacted with jealous jokes about his old school chum re-met who’s sponsored Sheila in the acting club.
A thorny second act has the old chum Freddy (Howard Dillon), in blazer and sporting an ascot, with wife Pam (Jessica Powell), in a knit beige dress and hat, over on a holiday visit. Freddy’s a socialist who took over his father’s factory: “I don’t want to appear authoritarian or fascist . . . was I shouting? . . . I tend to raise my voice when I’m helping people . . . all right, I don’t care: I am my brother’s keeper!”
The message comes out that Bri and Sheila should institutionalize Joe in a boarding school. Pam, who confides to the audience she has problems looking at “old women with skin diseases . . . old men spitting,” has privately referred to Joe as a “weirdie”, but they melt when they actually see her. Bri’s chatty mother Grace (Wanda McCaddon) drops in and further stirs the pot. (Bri teases her: “Did you see Jesus?” in the Christmas decor downtown? “If I did, I didn’t notice—drag religion into anything, won’t they? I think it’s a time for children!”) But there’s a sudden crisis, and unforeseen reactions and emotional outpourings spill out.
Described this way, it would seem Joe Egg ’s a wedding of post-Goon Show absurdist humor, so popular in PBS reruns, to a socially conscious domestic drama—caricatures of the middle class seen in a jaundiced eye. And there’s more than a bit of that deceptively strung through the play. But Nichols (and the uniformly fine TheatreFIRST cast under Chafer’s direction) are after something more difficult, maybe Chekhovian. These characters express their isolation from each other and themselves—not to mention social disaffection—through their self-contradictory assertions, hopes, confessions.
“Joe Egg”—like our “Joe Blow,” a sort of sad-sack Everyman—is the constant refrain: “And there I was standing there, just like Joe Egg.” It’s not just Josephine who’s something of a cypher to the others and the world. (Miranda Swain shows us that isolation, and a brief glimpse of Bri’s mother’s mantra: “Wouldn’t she be lovely if she was running about?”—something carried much further, and more strangely, in Sam Fuller’s 1965 film The Naked Kiss—another reminder of the physical, gestural stagecraft of this production of what seems a wholly verbal play.)
The tart dialogue and brisk pace bring out an impressive range in the cast. Howard Dillon and Jessica Powell particularly, Wanda McCaddon as well, walk a fine line between characterization and farce, with great success. And the interplay between the two leads—husband and wife in life as well as on stage—is fascinating; glances and gestures that go far beyond words counterpoint the dialogue every moment.
Simon Vance’s characterization of Bri hits all the registers without seeming to try. Something of a younger brother to Jimmy Porter of Look Back in Anger (and Peter Nichols is John Osborne’s close contemporary), he’s less obviously hostile, more ambiguous, but every bit as self-deluding in his easy-going cynicism—and as irresponsible. Vance portrays his pathetic, happy isolation beautifully. His solo abilities, shown in TheatreFIRST’s production of David Hare’s one-man Via Dolorosa about the playwright’s visit to Palestine and Israel, staged about a year and a half ago, come to fruition here in a character who’s onstage alone among others. And the infectious lower-middle class absurdist wit that’s his armor, his weapon against reality, cuts both ways.
Joe Egg takes the mickey out of the aloof, post-adolescent pose celebrated in pop culture since the late ‘50s and present in every revival of youth culture since, an unwitting parody of Hip and Cool that makes Joe Eggs of everyone.