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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
by Katherine Lawson

Forgive me for wishing a life I'd like to have. But if you think that is too ill. Or you can't step inside here with me, Sam, then you are not the man for me.
--- Lucia Joyce
Romola Garai as Lucia Joyce
(Photo: John Haynes)
Michael Hastings is most widely known for his play Tom and Viv, which examined the private life of TS Eliot. In his new play, Hastings returns to literary circles. Set in Paris in 1928, Calico takes the household of James Joyce (Dermott Crowley) as its setting and focuses on his mentally unstable daughter, Lucia (Romola Garai) and her relationship with Joyce's new secretary, a young Samuel Beckett (Daniel Weyman).

Despite being an affectionate and loving girl, Lucia suffers from outbursts of obscenity, an unnatural preoccupation with graphic sexual details and finds it difficult to relate to or understand people in a normal way. With Samuel, however, she feels that she can foresee the future and the two embark on a fantasy life in which they are married and have children. Although Samuel initially humours Lucia in her fantasies as a way of calming her, he is eventually forced to pull away from her.

Calico is an ambitious play which sets out not just to tell the story of two eccentric people finding consolation in each other but also to examine the tensions and emotional bonds between every member of the Joyce family. In many ways it is over ambitious: the play doesn't ever really get to grips with any of the problems it sets out to explore.

Joyce himself is depicted as a man so engrossed in his work that he has no time for his children's welfare, but the play never gets up the strength to volley a real attack at him. He is sidelined as "Loving but Taciturn Genius Slowly Going Blind" and although it is evident Joyce really loves Lucia, we are not really privy to his response to her final hospitalisation.

As a result, the play's aim is never made clear. Hastings appears to want to redeem Lucia and examine where her illness came from and the result it has on her family. But the play pulls away from us at the vital moments. As Lucia becomes increasingly unhinged we are allowed only snapshots of her post examination, seducing Beckett and finally bound by calico to a hospital bed.

Calico is at its most engrossing during the scenes between Samuel and Lucia. Their fantasy life is genuinely touching and Samuel's calmness provides a lovely backdrop for Lucia's volatile fantasy life. Their relationship is the only one to have any real depth and we are left feeling profoundly sorry for Beckett as he struggles to help Lucia.

This is Romola Garai's stage debut and she has certainly chosen a challenging part on which to cut her teeth. Her wild body movements are in turn truculent teenager and pouting Lolita and, as Lucia slips into madness, Garai develops a real sense of someone at odds with the world around them. In the first half, however, she struggles to achieve the very difficult balance of someone who is lucid and relatively normal one moment and screeching obscenities the next. Nevertheless, it is a courageous and promising performance.

Daniel Weyman's beautifully understated Samuel Beckett provides both solid support for Romola Garai and a welcome reprieve for the audience from the hysteria of the Joyces. Imelda Staunton and Dermot Crowley are also convincing in what are otherwise thinly written parts. One can't help but feel that director Edward Hall hasn't quite got to grips with the essence of Calico. The first half veers between the oddly farcical and heavy handed drama and moments, which could have proven genuinely funny, such as Lucia being discovered under Beckett's bed, are rendered completely flat.

The whole production is helped no end by a beautiful art deco inspired set from Francis O'Connor. This not only sets the scene perfectly but is also continually changing so that we are seamlessly transported from house, to street, to hospital and back. The final shot of Lucia encased in a bold white room made entirely of calico contrasts so fiercely with the earlier sets that it will stay in the memory long after the rest of the play has faded.

Written by Michael Hastings
Directed by Edward Hall

Starring: Romla Garai
With: Robert Portal, Daniel Weyman, Jamie Beamish, Dermot Crowley, Imelda Staunton, Issy Van Randwyck, Elaine Heathfield, Helen Washington
Designer: Francis O'Connor
Lighting Designer: Ben Ormerod
Sound: Matt Mackenzie for Autograph
Music: Mick Sands
Movement: Cathy Marston
Running time: Two hours twenty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 623
Booking to 29th May 2004.
Reviewed by Katherine Lawson based on 4th March 2004 Performance at the Duke of York's Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London WC2(Tube: Leicester Square)
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