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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Duke of York's Theatre     Spring 2004

In 1928 James Joyce was in Paris writing Finnegans Wake, living with his wife Nora, their adult son and daughter, and the son's rich but married American mistress, when he took on as a secretary the young Samuel Beckett.

Michael Hastings' new play about this household is thus an opportunity for some potentially fascinating biography (Who among us knew about the son and daughter?) as well as some what-if guessing at psychology (How did the master of language get along with the master of silence?)

What isn't really there, is a play.

Hastings spends more than half his time just setting up the situation and having some fun with the idea that the bohemian Joyces were at heart the most conventional of Irish Catholics.

Nora, for example, is deeply upset that her son and his lady friend share a bed, and offers as an alternative that the mistress have a nominal bedroom down the hall and just visit her son's room every night - that way, she hopes, the maid won't know.

It isn't until Act Two that Hastings decides his play is actually about the daughter Lucia, an erratic and probably schizophrenic woman who, the author imagines, can paradoxically only hang on to reality through rather sweet fantasies of a love affair with Beckett.

As she wanders in and out of loony bins, the others react characteristically, Nora pretending everything is all right as long as they don't talk about it, James in total denial, the brother and his lady trying to get on with their lives, and Beckett well-meaning but out of his depth.

And that's about it. Eventually the play stops, not really ending.

Hastings has a long essay in the programme (always an admission of failure to say what he wanted to in the play) in which he signs on to the feminist-historian thesis that Lucia was misunderstood, unappreciated, misdiagnosed and probably an incest victim. But none of that is in the script.

What we get is a nice showcase for Imelda Staunton as Nora, running a gamut of characterisation and acting from broad comic to deeply unhappy to quietly heroic.

As Lucia, Romola Garai does a lot of what looks like acting - you know, flouncing about, doing strange things with her voice, and the like - and only succeeds in fighting the playwright's thesis and convincing us that Lucia was mad as a hatter.

Dermot Crowley plays Joyce as so lost in his mental world of made-up words that he can barely notice reality, much less cope with it, and does succeed in suggesting that he has retreated to that world precisely because he can't cope with this one.

Daniel Weyman makes Beckett a total cipher, rarely doing more than looking aghast and bewildered in the manner that Jeremy Irons patented years ago.

Director Edward Hall keeps everything moving and does draw as much as possible out of the comic and melodramatic set pieces, but is unable to give any shape or meaning to this string of anecdotes and character sketches. Francis O'Connor's set is unnecessarily elaborate, busy and obtrusive.

Gerald Berkowitz

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