by Charlotte Jones
January 29-February 19
604-873-3311 or 604-280-3311
To bee or not to bee . . . Punning on Hamlet at every turn,
English playwright Charlotte Jones's Humble
Boy transforms Shakespeare’s
revenge tragedy into a very funny domestic dramedy. The melancholy
Dane becomes a stuttering 21st century astrophysicist, his dead
father a beekeeper, his mother a bee-itch. Glynis Leyshon’s
Playhouse production sparkles with a first-rate cast led by the
incandescent Fiona Reid.
Hamlet is Felix Humble (Dean Paul Gibson), a tense, overweight
researcher called home from Cambridge for his father's funeral.
He finds his self-obsessed mother Flora, played with wonderful
comic insouciance by Reid, more concerned with her recent nose
job than her husband's death. He sees appalling businessman George
Pye (Norman Browning) buzzing around his less-than-mourning mom.
Making matters worse, George's daughter Rosie (Megan Leitch)
and Felix were once an item. Her appearance at the wake opens
old wounds. Better at dealing with theoretical physics than mundane
facts, Felix in despair threatens to shuffle off this mortal
coil by strangling himself with a rubber hose but is saved by
the rock-steady gardener (Peter Millard).
Although Felix expounds on super-string theory the way Hamlet
broods on Renaissance metaphysics, Humble
Boy is at heart a play
about family. And the mother, not the boy, commands centre stage.
From her opening line, "I'm not angry, Felix, I am in-can-descent with rage," Reid absolutely nails queen bee Flora. A star
in Toronto, Reid rarely works out west. It's a special treat
to hear her deploy Flora's delicious sarcasm with that exquisitely
modulated voice that slices through Felix's broken heart like
a laser through butter.
Managing the daunting task of holding his own with her, Gibson
does excellent work as Felix. And though he teeters on the edge
of comic caricature, Browning makes George a convincingly vicious
antagonist. The guy literally pisses on Felix's father's ashes.
Set designer Pam Johnson renders the overgrown garden of the
Humble home in beautiful pastels, a fallen paradise (based on
Hamlet's metaphor of the world as an "unweeded garden that
grows to seed") where dad once pursued his passion for bees
and the adulterous snake George now pursues Flora.
Two or three false endings and a cheesy fight take some of the
wind out of Humble Boy, which has a little of the generic, made-for-the-West-End
quality of English commercial theatre, not least in the soft
landing Jones ultimately gives her characters in place of the
devastating collapse of Hamlet's world. But it is a comedy after
all, and a good one. This play's the thing even without a tragic