MAXINE Peake returns to the stage with another commanding performance in Samuel Beckett's absurdist two-act play at the Royal Exchange.

But Happy Days, the surreal 1961 play by Nobel Prize winning playwright Samuel Beckett, is curiously misnamed.

A woman trapped up to her waist in scorched grass can hardly be described as happy, although the lady in question, Winnie, repeatedly says that this is her happy day.

Maxine Peake gives an intelligent performance hinting at her fear at what is to come whilst remaining compos mentis as the burning sun beats down.

She acts as though she is alone but behind her, equally entrapped, is her husband, Willie (David Crellin) who spends his time with the newspaper and offers little support.

When he does communicate, it is monosyllabic. All the same, you feel that Winnie is glad of his presence.

Winnie scatters words about like the strands of grass which imprison her, never completely making sense of past experiences.

She manages to list logically the contents of her handbag even when one of them is a hand gun.

Why, you wonder, would a middle aged woman carry a hand gun but not a comb?

This play is full of such unanswered questions.

Later, in Act II she is buried up to her neck, but continues to talk and remember happier days.

Winnie’s is not an easy role to perform but Peake gets to grips with it, giving an inspiring performance.

As her situation worsens, Winnie becomes even stranger.

In my opinion, this play is trying to tell us something about human nature and the effect on the mind when the body is immobilised. But we never discover how these two people get into this situation in the first place.

Nevertheless, it is well written and you can see why Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

The spare, abstract set adds to the bizarre feel of the production and is complimented by Jack Knowles’ effective lighting and Claire Windsor’s moody sound effects.

* Happy Days runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until June 23. For tickets telephone 0161-833 9833. Star rating: * * * *