Calico, Duke of York's Theatre, London

Joyce's tragedy is full of cruel jokes but looks topsy-turvy
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The Independent Culture

This has not been the best of years so far for James Joyce. First, there was Roddy Doyle who has seen fit to inform the world thatUlysses is overrated, unmoving and in need of a good editor. And now, a new play,Calico, treats us to a galumphingly jocose, insensitive and somewhat prurient look at the cruellest tragedy to befall the great writer's family.

Michael Hastings, its author, seems to be cornering the market in dramas aboutunbalanced women living in the shadow of the arch-modernists. RememberTom and Viv, his controversial play about T S Eliot's anguished first marriage.

The lady in question this time is Joyce's schizophrenic daughter, Lucia (a clumsy, sexually impulsive but rarely affecting child-woman in Romola Garai's vivid performance). In the Paris of the late 1920s, she fell in love with the young Samuel Beckett, who was a regular visitor to the Joyce household. Edward Hall's sliding-stages production is game enough, but it can't disguise the fact that the piece has the scattered focus of a drama that might have been worked up from a television script. The idea is to intertwine the larky and the lacerating, but here, thesesimply leach the life from one another.

There's a lot of bog-standard-issue stuff about how it is no picnic to be the progeny of a prodigy. Joyce's son Giorgio, a would-be opera singer, creates a ruckus by installing a not-yet-divorced New York Jewish lover (Issy Van Randwyck) in the apartment, thereby flushing out the secret that his father and mother never legitimised their union.

On the key issues, though, the priorities of the piece look topsy-turvy. In this version of events, the reluctant, uptight Beckett (Daniel Weyman) finds himself, out of tortured compassion, having to collude with the troubled Lucia in a running fantasy about a parallel life in which they are blissfully married.

Joyce, an insufficiently layered Dermot Crowley, battles against accepting that his daughter is drifting into insanity. Only the excellent Imelda Staunton, as Joyce's long-suffering wife, Nora, can suggest anything like the requisite emotional hinterland. Elsewhere, in a rather trashy docu-drama, you are reminded of Alan Bennett's complaint that, in England, "gossip is the acceptable face of culture".