Samuel Beckett is presumably turning in his grave with pursed lips. He was not a playwright given to gossiping about his private life. One comment was prised out of him, during a rehearsal of Endgame, when he admitted the dysfunctional yet symbiotic duo Hamm and Clov resembled him and his wife. Now an early episode in his life, involving a possible love affair with James Joyce's daughter, Lucia, has been made into a West End play, Calico, by Michael Hastings. Living as an ex-pat in Paris, Beckett's early twenties were happy-going-on-unhappy days. In Edward Hall's production, David Weyman's gaunt Beckett seems a lucky fledgling writer. His helpful Irish chum, Tom MacGreevy, introduces him to the revered author of Ulysses. Beckett is taken on as Joyce's assistant, and Lucia, a freewheeling dancer played by eager Romola Garai, falls for him. The flip-side is she is going mad, uncontrollably utters embarrassing family secrets and yells lewd words. She ends up strapped to a bed in a mental hospital.
Some of the ideas and facts behind this play are intriguing. Joyce's estate has deliberately destroyed Lucia's letters to her father and other material. While Beckett may have favoured few words, Hastings objects to the silence surrounding her and strongly implies, in his programme notes, that the father-daughter relationship could have been incestuous. The play does not actually say that outright. However, Calico certainly suggests Joyce's family was laced with Freudian complexes and that Lucia was partly maddened by the conflicting messages she received about sex, liberation and language within this lapsed Catholic household.
Lucia's mother, Nora (Imelda Staunton), desperately objects to her son Giorgio living in sin. Yet she seems driven by jealousy and confesses that her own marriage to Dermot Crowley's outwardly respectable Joyce is a fiction. Garai's Lucia also finds the dirty letters Nora penned for her husband. We see Joyce encouraging his daughter and Beckett to invent words for his experimental novel, Finnegans Wake, but he represses talk about Lucia's outbursts and, in another way, is evading plain speaking in his books.
Hastings writes some beautiful poetic lines, but the tragicomic tone is awkward. Hall's cast occasionally shifts into vaudevillian mode, very half-heartedly and, though Garai gains poignancy in the end, her Lucia often seems a hilarious loony for our light entertainment. Staunton shines out, full of frustration and anxiety, though some biographers might take issue with Hastings's storyline when Nora and Joyce rebuke Beckett for sleeping with, rather than for cold-shouldering, their daughter. The two celebrated writers' relationship is barely sketched. Perhaps Beckett is meant to gain in experience and sorrow but in Weyman's performance he comes across as a blandly sympathetic clerk. More interesting is the fact that, just up the road, Michael Gambon is preparing to don the notorious dark glasses to play the compulsive storyteller, Hamm, while Crowley's glaucoma-plagued Joyce sits dictating in an eye-patch and Weyman's Beckett learns that Lucia finds comfort in her fantasies.
Meanwhile, Thornton Wilder's American family saga, The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), proves extraordinarily wacky and a striking antecedent of Waiting For Godot as his suburban couple, Mr and Mrs Antrobus, keep pulling back from despair, insisting they must "begin again". However, a darned sight more happens here. The Antrobuses don't just live in the mid-20th century. They surreally struggle to save the human race, inventing the wheel, surviving an Ice Age and an equally apocalyptic flood. The couple's son, Henry, is the ultimate problem, being a delinquent aggressor.
Lan's production has its ups and downs. It is a bold piece of programming and some of Wilder's scenes are wonderfully crazy, with a mammoth and dinosaur wandering into the dining room. Wilder also plays terrific games with his audience as the production itself seems beset by disasters. At the final preview that I caught, David Troughton stepped out of character as Mr A to cancel the show due to cast injuries and was so convincing that half the row in front of me made for the exits. Jolting around like a slab of beef in a bow-tie, Troughton is a great jovial clown with a menacing hint of Punch. Maureen Beattie is also excellent as the dowdy yet humane Mrs A.
Unfortunately, though, Wilder does ramble on and Bette Bourne, as the ill-boding fortune teller, is a bore. In spite of the contemporary relevance of environmental catastrophes and warmongering, the satire often falls flat. In the end, this piece comes over as a heartfelt plea for sustained optimism and the family unit.
Last but far from least, Oliver Twist is one of the few productions I have ever seen where Brechtian alienation techniques really work, with Dickens's damaged, underworld characters turning to the audience and challenging their complacency. Be warned, this is not Lionel Bart's jovial musical, but director Neil Bartlett's searing new adaptation of the novel, turning Dickens's original words into a riveting dramatic nightmare. Fagin goes to the gallows. The Dodger dies, narrating his own demise and sarcastically mouthing a sentimental, "Awww". Bartlett does not strip away all sweetness and hope. Jordan Metcalfe's Oliver looks like a golden-haired angel and his goodness is supremely resilient, but he is traumatised, pale as a ghost and rigid with terror. His world is claustrophobic, like a child-size Victorian theatre converted into a hellish shack, and Michael Feast's Fagin is a callous devil with straggly hair and snaky eyes. Interestingly, his accent veers between cockney and Jewish, the latter being spoken in a mocking style that makes clear he has abandoned his religious faith and that the criminal characters are self-protective pretenders. Dickens's use of theatrical metaphors is very intelligently teased out. Owen Sharpe also brilliantly encapsulates the Dodger's mix of spite and tenderness as he repeatedly manipulates Oliver's head while relating how Oliver, walking to London, kept collapsing from exhaustion and getting up again.
Feast is less successful when he drops his ironic edge to play the hissing villain going mad in his prison cell. This is unconvincingly melodramatic. Composer Gerald McBurney's dour choiring is rather drab and this production is indebted to the gothic vision of Shockheaded Peter. But here all the colour has been sucked out, leaving a formidably dark portrait of the poverty trap. This is the best stage adaptation of Dickens since Trevor Nunn's Nicholas Nickleby.
'Calico': Duke of York's, London WC2 (020 7836 5122), to 29 May; 'The Skin of Our Teeth': Young Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 6363), to 10 April; 'Oliver Twist': Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (08700 500511), to 27 March and touringReuse content