Humble Boy, Library Theatre, Manchester

Laughter in the darkness
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The Independent Culture

Super-string theory and the habits of bees, sexual frustration and sexual solitude, buzz restlessly around Charlotte Jones's ingenious play, Humble Boy. Under a cloak of potentially baffling scientific darkness, this search for unity in astrophysical terms - there conciliation of large and small - is mirrored in six mainly incompatible characters who may or may not patch up their big and little differences.

At Manchester's Library Theatre, where it's receiving its regional premiere, Humble Boy doesn't have the kind of well-known names attached to it during hugely successful runs at the National Theatre and in the West End - Diana Rigg, Felicity Kendall, Simon Russell Beale. However, Roger Haines's deft production boasts a cast which shines uniformly, comfortably filling the stars' shoes in Jones's Cotswolds country garden.

With the death of Jim Humble, a bee-keeper, the Humble family bees have been done away with, their drowsy hum replaced with stinging dialogue and stabbing jibes. Between the unhappy Humbles and the peculiar Pye family, dysfunctions have become intriguingly and hopelessly entangled in a hive of waspish activity.

Allusions to Hamlet run through the play like a sticky thread and there's fun to be had from picking up the often witty, sometimes absurd, and occasionally laboured parallels between the two plays. Against the background of designer Judith Croft's lavishly stocked garden - so big-blossomed it's positively blowzy, so over the top that all it lacks is gnomes - reality and ghostliness encounter and finally embrace one another.

The bumbling Humble boy, Felix, given a sympathetic performance by Ian Midlane, is a young scientist gone hopelessly to seed. He's as earthbound as if he had wing burnout, as ill-adjusted to the conventions and consequences of contemporary living as he is ill-fitted to the suit of his late father into which he insists on squeezing himself. He looks in confusion at his own life and in bewilderment at his mother who is intent on marrying her longtime lover almost as soon as her late husband's ashes have cooled. But not if Felix has anything to do with it.

Steely and selfish, Anna Nicholas, in the Gertrude role of Flora, is unwilling to face the fact that her life is a sham, preferring to bask in the attentions of drone and big-band bore, George Pye, a character played for all its vulgar worth by Stephen Mackenna. Flora has always been too busy queen-bee-ing it ever to have realised that Pa Humble was a good thing in his own humdrum way, too busy lamenting the fact of her double misfortune - to have been married to a chemistry teacher and to have produced an astrophysicist son.

With the arrival of George's daughter, appealingly portrayed by Jessica Lloyd, yet more strands of the plot are loosened and the hitherto somewhat one-dimensional aspect of the characters takes on a broader, more humane shape. Helen Blatch captures the oh-so-bright ditheriness of Mercy, Flora's loyal worker-bee struggling so very hard to improve each shining hour. When finally stung into revealing her true feelings she produces a sad-eyed, surly hum of reproach spun into possibly the longest ever grace before supper.

In a touchingly understated performance Colin Prockter adds his own kind of grace as Jim Humble's amiable ghost. George's musical taste, complemented by Richard Taylor's delicate, unsettling score, adds to the colour of Jones's sparkling play in which good laughs and neat twists make up for its contrived plot and pseudo-scientific notions.

Whatever the Hamlet parallels, I don't remember Shakespeare's tragedy having anything like the rich vein of humour Jones has invested in Humble Boy.

To 1 May (0161-236 7110)

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