Any play which uses bees as a metaphor for the family structure with smatterings of scientific theory and references to Hamlet may seem like a hard sell. But playwright of the moment, Charlotte Jones had an unlikely hit with this tale of bee keeping and family strife at the National and the West End two years ago. Audiences in Manchester are finally given the chance to see if this play is the bee's knees. (sorry!).
Felix Humble (Ian Midlane) returns reluctantly to his family home following the death of his beloved father. His mother, Flora (Anna Nicholas) is determined to move on and embark on a relationship with wide boy, George Stephen McKenna. Felix clashes with his vain mother and seeks solace in the arms of George's feisty daughter, Rosie (Jessica Lloyd). But she is set to cause even more turmoil in the Humbles' English Country Garden.
Jones' marvellous writing leaves the audience laughing at the saddest of situations. One scene featuring the overweight, depressed Felix sat holding his father's ashes in a honey pot is enlivened by the line: "He looks like Winnie- the bloody- Pooh!" During a family meal the topic of the conversation turns to the best method of suicide. Contemplating the pros and cons of using a gas oven, Flora says: "Anything is preferable to cleaning it!" These comic gems are delivered with aplomb by the splendid cast.
Midlane stutters sensitively as Felix, the misunderstood, witty genius who cannot find the scientific code for love. Nicholas plays Flora as a monster but also displays her fragility perfectly, seeming close to tears during confrontational scenes. Lloyd plays sassy but ultimately lonely Rosie with ease, particularly when she has to fight back against the snobbish Humble family. Colin Prockter provides the play with its heart as the mysterious gardener. Helen Blatch is delightfully dotty as Mercy, the put upon next door neighbour with a heart of gold. Only McKenna tends to lose his way slightly giving a performance that is too chuckle-some for a black comedy. He lacks the sharpness of the other performers.
Judith Croft's marvellous set brings warmth and beauty to the stage as a backdrop to the chaos within the family hive. At times Jones seems to have too many ideas but thanks to Roger Haines' fluid direction, and engaging chemistry, Humble Boy adds up to a great evening of theatre.
- Glenn Meads