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Peter Nichols, who sadly recently passed away at 92, was one of that great generation of playwrights like Osborne and Pinter who emerged in a blaze of glory the ‘60s and who shook up the British theatrical establishment with plays which pushed the boundaries of both form and content.
This play, which premiered at Glasgow’s earthy Citizens Theatre in 1967, launched his career because within 3 years it had conquered West End, Broadway (where it won a Tony) and was made into a successful movie with Alan Bates.
With moments of real vulnerability and tenderness interspersed with sardonic fantasy sequences the play dared to put disability centre state at a time, just before theatre censorship was abolished in the UK, when such subjects were deemed inappropriate.
While it is great to see that it still holds up, it sadly reminds us that when it comes to representations of disability, theatre comes off very poorly compared with TV. Where, for example, are the contemporary stories on stage which tell the lived experience of disabled people? The attitudes here will shock (such as the mother’s supposed promiscuity being posited as a cause of her daughter’s disability) but it was 52 years ago. It is also important to remember that what inspired this play was Nichols’ own personal experience of raising a similarly disabled daughter. The play is important because it did wonders to raise awareness at the time and along the way it both engaged and entertained a wide audience.
Simon Evans’ assured revival is graced by two starring performances which would be hard to better. Toby Stephens as Bri, the bored schoolteacher, has grown into the great character actor he was destined to become, albeit one with added star charisma. Claire Skinner, always underrated, is radiant here and brings whole new shades to Sheila, the steadfast wife who bears the bulk of the burden of nursing the couples’ teenage daughter Joe (Storme Toolis), who has cerebral palsy. She rises above the character’s saintliness and makes her vivid. In a first for the play, Joe is not played by a child but rather as a teenager, and also by a disabled actor and this opens up new vistas for the play. Toolis has the same condition as Joe but different impairments.
Stephens and Skinner have great chemistry and what a joy to see a (mostly) happy couple on stage for once, albeit one whose marriage has to withstand the pressures of supporting a disabled child. They cope with the daily drudgery with a combination of cheery optimism and caustic irony and by engaging in role-play games. Through these we learn all about Joe’s difficult birth and the long aftermath until the full extent of her condition became apparent. They wittily play out the battles they had with a posh, dim GP, a self-important Viennese hospital consultant and a ‘handsy’ vicar and we witness the sheer frustration these families endure.
Patricia Hodge provides a delicious cameo as Bri’s possessive and lonely mother while Clarence Smith and Lucy Eaton rise above underwritten roles as ‘helpful’ friends Freddie and Pam. Successful businessman Freddie is drowning in middle class guilt about Bri and Sheila’s lot but hardnosed wife Pam is made of sterner stuff and not averse to singing the praises of euthanasia.
Peter McKintosh’s designs, including eye-catching costumes for the women, are a joy to behold but the luxury of the cosy living room here speaks more of contemporary aspirational couples rather than ordinary folk in 1960s Bristol.