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Joe’s Ark

A more subdued, even warm, turn from Dennis Potter. Well, relatively speaking. Freddie Jones is a religious Welsh pet shop owner whose faith is tested when his daughter (Angharad Rees) becomes terminally ill with bone cancer. Driven by a rather fatuous sermon at the local chapel to storm out, he tends his pets ruefully while she awaits the inevitable upstairs. The priest visits, attempting conciliatory words but failing miserably in the face of Joe’s pessimism (“Nice bit o’ Welsh lamb waiting for you at home? Shame to let it spoil, now.”) A timid friend of Lucy’s from Oxford visits, similarly ails to connect with the old man, or his daughter, who has no time for his bumbling declaration of infatuation.

Finally Jones’ wayward son (Dennis Waterman), a failing and resentment-filled touring comedian (“My mouth’s turned into a permanent sneer” he tells his ‘partner’, who peps up his act with ‘exotic dancing’) arrives just too late to see his sister after Lucy’s Oxford friend writes him a letter on her behest. As she dies, Joe and son are left together on the stair, and a sort of reconciliation is hinted at (“Let’s go up and see her. Lovely she looks, now”).

Perhaps expecting another close to the bone familial encounter, critics lambasted the modest piece for its sentiment and lack of ‘bite’. Potter himself has commented ambivalently on this work, claiming that the sentiment he consciously tried to expunge “kept creeping back in”, and commenting that, in synopsis at least, the play does read “like the winning entry in a New Statesman competition parodying gloomy pretension”. Such thoughts possibly led him to over-react the other way by writing the decidedly sentiment-free “dark sitcom” Brimstone and Treacle, in which a very similar situation – beautiful stricken young woman, parents losing faith, unwanted visitors – is played out in a very different way.

Freddie in the highly symbolic shop Deathbed 101 Dennis feels the pain
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