Saturday, 24 March 2018

Theatre review: Humble Boy

I didn't catch Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy when it premiered at the National in 2001, but I've heard it mentioned a lot since as one of the best-loved new plays of the time. Paul Miller now tests how well it's aged with a revival of this gentle tragicomedy with overt Hamlet allusions. Designer Simon Daw has gone all-out in transforming the Orange Tree's in-the-round stage into the garden of Flora Humble's (Belinda Lang) Cotswolds home. Her husband has just died and her son Felix (Jonathan Broadbent) has returned after a long absence to attend the funeral, only to disappear when he was meant to be giving the eulogy. Felix is a theoretical astrophysicist who's been trying to find a unifying theory of the cosmos. His attempts to examine his inner life have been as unsuccessful as those to examine black holes, and he arrives back at the family home still in a suicidal mood.

Despite his frosty relationship with his mother, he decides to stay for the rest of the summer to try and get his head straight, only to discover Flora has been having an affair with Nigel off Eastenders.

Compared to his gentle, beekeeping father, George Pye (Paul Bradley) is boorish and quick-tempered; he's also the father of Rosie (Rebekah Hinds,) whom Felix had a relationship with seven years earlier, and whom he broke up with when he realised he could never love her as much as he loved astrophysics. Also hanging around is Mercy, Selina Cadell often stealing the show as the sweet but downtrodden friend who puts up with endless barbs from Flora; and a peaceful presence among all the stress is the gardener, Jim (Christopher Ravenscroft.)

Humble Boy owes a lot to Alan Ayckbourn, feeling like one of his better plays (although with the odd cringeworthy joke that could have come out of his worst.) In a play filled with bee imagery, Flora is waspish to the point of devastating, and Lang clearly relishes playing her as a classic theatrical monster (Arkadina from The Seagull is another influence that comes to mind,) although it's not really until the very end that she suggests some humanity under the superficiality and bitchy one-liners. It does help make this a very funny few hours though, the light comedy winning out over the gentle sadness that's also very well-observed.

The Hamlet references extend well beyond the premise of an academic returning home to find his mother contemplating remarriage two months after his father's death: Blunt talk of suicide, skulls, and listing the names and meanings of flowers all feature, meaning the identity of Ravenscroft's mysterious gardener is a bit easy to guess. I suppose given the play's reputation I was surprised at how old-fashioned it turns out to be, but if the template is uses is a familiar one, Jones' play is a very successful and enjoyable example of it.

Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones is booking until the 14th of April at the Orange Tree Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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