This Peter Nichols dark comedy first saw the lights of the London West End in 1967. As a major piece of the new wave of its time, it confronted audiences in new ways content, structure and double-bladed dialogue. In the 30-plus years since it has lost none of its comedic impact or dramatic power and, in the sensitive and capable directorial hands of Carol Burns, realises both in this QTC revival.
During the opening classroom tirade by teacher Brian (Paul Denny), those unfamiliar with the play could be excused for believing they are in for an evening of fun and frolic with his active engagement of them as the pupils in the second rate public school at which he teaches. It is an extraordinary dramatic device that makes our realisation of the true intention and action of the play all the more potent and painful.
Brian (“Bri”) and wife Sheila (Sarah Kennedy) are the parents of a ten-year-old, profoundly handicapped daughter, Joe (Holly Graham). Her first, absolutely convincing misshapen appearance and subsequent contorted fits, tear at the heart while Nichols evokes our laughter, despite ourselves, through the games and coping strategies Bri and Sheila use to deal with the prospect of the unchanging lifelong reality Joe represents.
Of the cast of six these are the only three we see in the lengthy first act. We learn how and possibly why Joe is as she is. Of the guilt Sheila feels. Through a series of painfully funny role plays, we learn of of their helplessness and anguish at the hands of uncaring and possibly incompetent medicos, and well-intentioned but essentially comfortless and ineffectual persons of the cloth.
Amid the comedy Denny and Kennedy treat us to superbly modulated dramatic duets and evocative monologues rich in reality and alive with subtle revelations of their individual and shared history and pain, pivoting on both the seen and ever-sensed presence of Joe.
Act 2 introduces well-to-do friends Pam (Caroline Kennison) and Freddie (Stu Cochrane), and Bri’s fusbudgeting mother Grace (Kaye Stevenson). These are the family and friends who visit the war-zone free of the responsibility of living in and enduring it. Pam and Freddie each have attitudes and “solutions”. While Freddie’s are blusteringly well meaning, Pam’s skate dangerously close to “the ultimate”. Mother Grace is played by Ms Stevenson at a the pace of an old 33 vinyl record, played at 45 rpm. Where do her sympathies and focus lie? Perhaps not even she (Grace) knows. More with her son than his wife and daughter one senses.
While acknowledging that these characters have less scope for subtlety in the revelation of their relationships with Bri and Sheila and their feelings for or about Joe, each I felt overplayed not grossly but enough to chip the fine china so beautifully crafted by Kennedy and Denny and Holly Graham in Act 1.
I recommend the play, the production and the performances. All contribute to theatre craft which reaches into our hearts and heads and sends us on our homeward way not quite the same people we were when we entered the magic space.