Preview A Day In The Death of Joe Egg
PUBLISHED: 11:29 02 October 2019
Muswell Hill actor Claire Skinner stars in a revival of the late Belsize Park playwright Peter Nichols' taboo busting drama about raising a severely disabled child
The tag 'the mum from Outnumbered' is perhaps destined to follow Claire Skinner around, despite her widely acclaimed stage and screen work.
But if the 54-year old has recently been in the news for airing her relationship with sit-com co-star Hugh Dennis, her latest role sees her play another mother - this time to a severely disabled child.
Peter Nichols' pitch black tragi-comedy A Day In The Death of Joe Egg portrays parents Bri and Sheila struggling to hold their marriage together as they care for wheelchair bound daughter Jo.
Written in 1967, the play is daring in having the couple perform comic routines, and Vaudeville-style patter that confronts taboos around disability.
"It's still quite challenging," says the Muswell Hill actress.
"Even in going from direct address to farce and back to more normal scenes, you can feel the audience having to change gear.
"It's also very confronting, you can almost hear the audience say 'are we allowed? How do we respond? There have been adjustments to the text, some of the expressions are distracting to hear today, but you can't totally take away the truth of a play."
That all makes it "incredibly challenging" for a performer.
"I knew it would be, I could see from the page 'this will be hard.'. I quite like to do things like that, but now we are in previews it's completely terrifying. I've been saying to Patricia (Hodge) 'why do we keep doing it? It must be part of an actor's make-up."
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Nichols based the play on personal experience of his disabled daughter Abigail, who died aged 10. He lived for years in Belsize Park, but he died earlier this month before seeing the latest revival of his breakthrough play, which was turned down by West End venues for using laughter to discuss disability.
Hampstead director Michael Blakemore has said the board at the Glasgow Citizens where it debuted thought it a "sick comedy". And at a time when plays were still censored, the Lord Chamberlain suggested that Jo be played by a dummy so as not to alarm audiences. Past productions have cast able-bodied or child actors, but the Trafalgar Studios revival sees Storme Toolis as the first disabled actor to play the role.
Like Jo she has cerebral palsy. "She's eloquent on the subject and says her impairment is very different to Jo's but she brings an understanding to it that's been invaluable and I think she brings reality onto that stage."
In rehearsal, the cast met the mothers of disabled children.
"Attitudes towards disability have changed there's better facilities, but they are still talking about the same things; battling with NHS red tape, what happens to a marriage, and how a relationship suffers because of depression and isolation."
While Bri relies on black humour to deal with his despair and wants Jo taken into care, Sheila nurses hope of a miraculous recovery. The play thrums with the tension between their two responses, and Skinner thinks that using humour to cope with desperation was Nichols' way of "uttering the worst thing you could think of out loud".
"There are these outside characters who watch them perform this marital dysfunction but what's touching are the glimpses of how brilliant their marraige has been. There's no doubting the huge love in this family. It's just gone awry."
She praises co star Toby Stephens for harnessing both Bri's darker depths and his "wild sense of humour and sense of the ridiculous".
But her own turns in comic roles like Outnumbered's Sue Brockman, and straight parts in Florian Zeller's The Father mean she can also handle the gear shifts.
"You're not just a comedy or a tragedy actor," says Skinner. "You are trying to play the truth of a character using different aspects of your personality. Sheila has a fierce mother's love and an absolute stubborn determination for there to be something hopeful from this situation. I am naturally quite pessimistic so it's quite nice to play an optimist.
"The play is about two people struggling with being human and that's what we go to the theatre for. To find that connection."
Tickets and information at trafalgar-studios.com