A very brief programme biography states: "From 1986 to September 2001 Eddie Izzard was playing Tebonius in the Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the Southend Playhouse." While that is a (surprisingly feeble, perhaps deliberately grammatically incorrect) joke, Izzard's latest theatrical role is, however, far from one. It's not stunt casting, either, to have him replace Clive Owen in the transfer of Peter Nichols' A Day in the Death of Joe Egg from the New Ambassadors to the Comedy.

In fact, the part of Bri - father to a severely handicapped daughter - could have been written for him, so naturally does he assume it. It helps that the character, with several direct address commentaries delivered straight to the audience, is indeed part stand-up comic, painfully mitigating the sit-down tragedy of the situation by making us laugh at it. (Izzard's last West End appearance, in the title role of Lenny, was also a stand-up one, in more senses than the fact that it was about the comic Lenny Bruce. On some nights, following a moment of naked intimacy with his co-star Elizabeth Berkley, he was seen to rise to the occasion).

But Izzard, too, is also a warmly sympathetic and vulnerable actor, to whom an audience is instinctively drawn. And he has a spontaneously affectionate rapport with the still wonderful Victoria Hamilton as his wife Sheila.

In fact, Laurence Boswell's fine revival has deepened and matured in many ways since it was first seen, not least (for my money) in Prunella Scales' performance as Bri's mother, Grace. Whereas the first time I saw her I was distracted by what I thought were sitcom tendencies, her performance has become considerably less broad and more truthfully comic.

A wonderful production has been made even better.

- Mark Shenton


Note: The following review dates from October 2001 and this production's original West End season at the New Ambassadors Theatre, with Clive Owen as Bri.


The theatrical rehabilitation of Peter Nichols, begun last year with the Donmar's stunning reclamation of his 1981 marital drama Passion Play, continues apace now with a powerfully involving revival of his first commercial success, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, that was originally seen in 1967. (Next up, the Donmar turn to his next most celebrated piece, Privates on Parade, for a Christmas production).

A comedy about parenting a severely brain-damaged child - based on the personal experience of Nichols and his wife Thelma with their first daughter, Abigail - only a writer as personally involved yet deeply unsentimental and theatrically daring as Nichols could pull it off.

The result is that rare thing: a seriously funny play about a seriously unfunny subject. Nichols' daring in achieving that is astounding enough; but that is not all. He's also constantly playful with theatrical form and convention as well, repeatedly dissolving the fourth wall between the stage and audience as the actors step out of the action and direct address their thoughts to us.

Don't let that put you off. This is no Pirandellian evening of theatrical artifice, but a play shot through with poignant observation of the deadly ordinariness found in a young couple coping with an extraordinary situation. Bri, a teacher, and his wife Sheila are both beautifully realised characters and - with the utterly naturalistic accounts of them delivered by Clive Owen (returning to a role he previously played in another production at Islington's King's Head) and Victoria Hamilton - you're overwhelmed by their tangible affection for each other, their resilience and their strength.

In a scene-stealing second act cameo, Prunella Scales as Bri's mother is more caricature than character. She approaches the role as if she were playing Orton rather than Nichols, and director Laurence Boswell has failed to reign her in. But the director is on surer, more truthful ground with the visiting couple, Freddie and Pam (John Warnaby and Robin Weaver), who give perfect measure to what may well be the audience's own point of view of watching these events from the outside.

Nichols' audacious play doesn't flinch either from providing the uncomfortable facts of the situation, and as the handicapped child, Catalina Blackman and Elizabeth Holmes-Gwillim alternate in bringing her wheelchair-bound involuntary fits and spasms to reality.

- Mark Shenton