I haven’t really written or talked about Bri since I watched the Trafalgar Studios production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg twelve times between September and November 2019. I have never watched a play twelve times, I might have been to Les Mis more often, but it’s different with musicals. And it happened over two decades. But twelve times in two months is insane, even from a theatre nerd perspective.
I’m not sure I’m ready to write about Bri, because actually there is no writing about Bri without writing about how deep in depression I already was in those months. I don’t really sleep anymore. I doze. My anxiety fights slow-wave, so I usually wake up before I enter deep sleep. Sometimes with a fright, heart beating like crazy, certain that I missed or lost something important. I go through life like a sleepwalker. But I tend to not let anyone see how exhausted I really am. I use all sorts of mechanisms, like obsession, perfectionism, cynisism or sarcasm to stay afloat. But I am so fucking exhausted. That’s where I connected with Bri.
There are so many ways to connect with the characters and themes of Joe Egg. People with disabilities will connect differently than parents of children with disabilities, people working with them, people who have no experience whatsoever with them, people who have to take care of someone 24/7 or aren’t taken care of by anyone, people who have, like Storme Toolis, the actress playing Joe so graciously put it, their own "Joe Egg", which can be anything that makes your life more difficult. It was also Storme who said that the play is about "how you function when you don’t quite know how to function", which is what made it so very meaningful to me during a time when I did everything I could to function, but had already fallen apart.
There is a very long sequence in the middle of the play where Sheila and Bri put on a play in the play to tell the stories of their struggles in an exaggerated, theatrical way. It’s a roleplay where they act as doctors who treated Joe or their consulting priest. They use the space in front of the stage, which means they are very close to the audience and involve them at certain points. Toby Stephens as well as his co-star Claire Skinner played this sequence with so much empathy and intensity as well as comedic timing, it was, I swear, different every single time. I went through different emotions every single time, sometimes their exaggerated act made me feel deeply sorry for them, sometimes it made me impatient, sometimes I understood one better than the other, one time I silently cried through Claire’s monologue, but every time it all led to Bri’s ironic statement that "every cloud has a jet black lining", which hit a nerve and stuck with me all autumn and winter. It resurfaced in the strangest situations, like a mantra. It’s a pessimist’s pun of course, a play with the famous optimist saying that every cloud has a silver lining.
After the last time I watched Joe Egg, which was on the second last performance day, I jokingly said to Toby that I was glad it was over as I was sick of it, but actually I wasn’t. Not at all. I felt sort of empty and lost, because for two months it was my go to routine to be able to feel something, connect with my emotions and be in a safe place. I still have a vivid image of the theatre, the lobby, the bar downstairs, the auditorium, the staff and most of all the music. I had put Dear Mr. Fantasy by Traffic on my playlist, the track that started and ended each performance and encapsulates Bri so very well. Every time shuffle brought it up, even months later, I started to cry. I still do. The lyrics go "you are the one who can make us all laugh, but doing that you break out in tears" and it’s the subtext of all the imbalances I struggled with for years. We pull ourselves together and pull ourselves together, we entertain a large group of friends and acquaintances, post funny memes on Facebook, we do our jobs, we do the hobbies we feel were meant to be our jobs and we try to be there for the people we love. And somewhere inside it all accumulates until we snap. And then we are just lost.
When Toby as Bri sits front right at the edge of the stage near the end of the play, in his paint stained clothes which make him look like the big man-child he is, while behind him the farce has taken a dark turn, the last speech builds up quietly for minutes in his face. So when he finally starts to deliver it, it’s this rich universe of deeply human bullshit, taking us through the whole set of Bri mechanisms, alienation, commentary, irony to the final truth where he drops the act, admits to himself that he can’t function anymore and comes to a masterfully acted moment of emotional breakdown. Without big gestures, without overacting, just a hint of tearfulness that absolutely hit me in the gut. It’s a gift Toby has: to convey just so much more emotion through his eyes and his voice than other actors can and I felt myself on a wild fun fair ride through the full range of Bri’s dissection of his life and marriage every single one of the twelve times.
When I sit at home now, mid-pandemic, post-lockdown, with theaters still dark in most places and specially in London, there’s a big jet black sadness and at the same time a slightly silver defiance. We need theatre! We need it so much! We need this moment of human connection in a fully digitalized world. We need to look into the eyes of an actor standing before us and see our own emotions reflected and filtered through a character. It’s not the same on a screen. It lives only in the moment. It’s what can’t be captured, a transient experience that gets to us, even through the cotton deadening of a depression.
Written by: Claudia Toman, Production Photos: Marc Brenner